Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III) 

A continuation of: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

Plans and Pitfalls

Joseph Lawless was a busy man in his workshop at 198 Parnell Street, Dublin, where he churned out bombs for use by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The process was a simple one: a steel pipe sawn off to four inches and then sealed at either end, save for a hole drilled in one in which to insert the fuse. But this was too crude a method for Lawless’ exacting standards and so he argued to colleagues that his allocated funds would be better spent renovating the old foundry in the basement. With that, a more sophisticated type of explosive could be produced.

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Parnell Street, Dublin

His lobbying was successful enough for a visit to the workshop from Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the O/C and the Quartermaster of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively. The two officers listened as Lawless expounded on his proposal. While interested, McKee remained noncommittal, telling Lawless that he would send over Rory O’Connor, the Director of Engineering in the IRA GHQ, for a second opinion on the idea’s feasibility.

The man in question called in at the workshop a day or so later. Lawless’ first impression was not a promising one:

He struck me as peculiarly solemn and unsmiling, one might say lugubrious, and did not appear to listen to what I said when I began to explain the details of what I considered my plan for a bomb factory.

Where was the furnace? O’Connor asked Lawless while the latter was in mid-sentence. He wanted to examine it for himself.

Lawless took his graceless guest down to the basement, cautioning him that the furnace, in an unlit corner at the back, was missing the grating for its draught-pit in front. Ignoring this advice, O’Connor pressed on in the dark and, before Lawless could stop him, stumbled into the open hole, much to Lawless’ quiet amusement.

Still, no harm done save to O’Connor’s dignity and, after a few days, Lawless received word that his proposal had been approved by his Brigade superiors. O’Connor had evidently submitted a favourable report on his findings, however gauche he might have been in person.[1]

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Examples of the grenades manufactured in Parnell Street for the IRA

Different Impressions

O’Connor could have that effect on his fellow revolutionaries. Todd Andrews thought him “too forbidding a person to approach. He was saturnine in appearance, very dark-skinned, always in deep thought, brooding and worried. He did not look a healthy man.” But to Piaras Béaslaí, while he conceded that O’Connor’s “manner was not attractive to strangers…those who were intimate with him found him to be a very pleasant and sociable companion.”[2]

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David Neligan

Another one close enough to uncover O’Connor’s inner charm was David Neligan. “He was good company, a great talker, very cheerful,” Neligan remembered. Though he shared O’Connor’s political convictions, his role in the Irish struggle was a very different one: as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), Neligan had access to confidential information in Dublin Castle, which he leaked to his IRA contacts. He was walking through St Stephen’s Green with a DMP co-worker when the latter indicated a short, middle-aged man, with a face thin to the point of haggard, sitting nearby on a park bench.

“See him, Dave?” said the policeman. “He is a prominent Sinn Feiner. If he is there tomorrow, we’ll have him pulled.”

Having recognised O’Connor, Neligan made sure to pass on a warning, much to O’Connor’s gratitude. Though O’Connor had dodged arrest, Neligan was to see him in peril again, this time in the yard of Dublin Castle, being interrogated by a British intelligence officer. Neligan tried arguing that the suspect was merely a harmless eccentric but to no avail.

“I’m told,” said the officer, “that he is a prominent Shinner.”[3]

Which was true enough, and O’Connor was forwarded to Arbour Hill to join the other POWs there, including Lawless, who had likewise been collared. As if that was not bad enough. Lawless learnt the day after his apprehension, in December 1920, about the discovery of his Parnell Street workshop and the bomb-factory he had worked so hard to set up.

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British soldiers investigating captured IRA munitions

It was not the end of the war, of course, nor of Lawless’ part in it, and he handled the smuggling of letters in and out of Arbour Hill, thanks to bribed wardens. Through this, O’Connor was able to keep in contact with the rest of the revolutionary leadership, though there was something about O’Connor that Lawless found unsettling.

According to Lawless, it was an opinion shared by a number of the other inmates:

Rory was a solemn, unsmiling egotistical sort of person whom we looked upon as a little mad and did not take him too seriously.

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Con O’Donovan

At least the authority of Con O’Donovan helped keep things steady. As the elected commandant of the prisoners, O’Donovan liaised with the Arbour Hill governor and ensured the maintenance of discipline among the inmates. Near the end of January 1921, O’Donovan was transferred to Ballykinlar Camp, an internment centre set up to manage the overflow of captives taken by the Crown forces as the war intensified.

O’Donovan’s absence created a vacancy for the role of prison commandant, which Lawless was voted in to fill. Not all were pleased by this choice, however, as Lawless recalled:

The other candidate for the appointment was Rory O’Connor, who mooted around the claim that as a member of the IRA General Staff he was the senior officer in the prison. However, as I have already mentioned, the general body of prisoners did not quite trust Rory’s mental balance.

To smooth things over, Lawless pointed out to O’Connor that it was best for him not to gain too much prominence and instead remain anonymous among the mass of detainees. Despite his capture, O’Connor’s identity and true importance was unknown to his captors, who registered him under the assumed name he had provided.[4]

Prison Pump Politics

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Joseph Lawless in prison

O’Connor made no more complaints over who was what, though Lawless did not think he was entirely conciliated. In early March 1921, the inmates were paraded in the main hall, where the names of those due to be moved to the Curragh, Co. Kildare, were read out, around one hundred and fifty, which amounted to half their number.

Lawless and O’Connor were among those set to leave. While they waited, listening to the hum of the vehicles outside that were to be their transport, O’Connor sidled up to Lawless and asked in a whisper if he had any plans to escape along the way. To O’Connor’s displeasure, Lawless told him no, not for the moment, since they were sure to be heavily guarded, unless an opportunity happened to appear.

This wait-and-see attitude was not what O’Connor had been wanting to hear:

He then took up the heavy attitude with me and, speaking as a member of the General Staff, warned me that it was my duty as a prisoners’ commandant to organise an escape. Poor Rory was evidently still suffering from the snub to his dignity of my election as commandant against his candidature, and I regretted the necessity for a further snub when I replied that the matter rested safely in my hands.

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Rory O’Connor

Lawless at least refrained from the ‘snub’ of saying that he was less concerned about the journey ahead – he did not think much was likely to happen on the road – and more about O’Connor, who Lawless was sure would make another attempt at the position of commandant once they were in the Curragh. Not that Lawless desired leadership and its responsibilities but he wanted O’Connor in control even less.

Once he separated himself from O’Connor, he went to Peadar McMahon, a friend of his, and persuaded him to put himself forward for the role once they reached the Curragh. McMahon reluctantly agreed to do so but only on condition that Lawless would help shoulder the burden.

“All this may sound a bit like parish pump politics,” Lawless admitted when composing his account for posterity. Eager to avoid factions, he hoped that McMahon would be a unanimous choice…anyone would do, in fact, as long as it was not O’Connor.[5]

In that, Lawless had his way. McMahon was elected to be in charge for the duration of their stay in the Curragh, with Lawless his second-in-command as agreed. O’Connor had been outmanoeuvred, and Lawless prepared to make do as best he could to life behind the barbed wire-fences and sentry-points of the Rath Camp. Their new confinement was a circular mound, with a diameter of a hundred feet, which lay on a ridge just west of the Curragh. Rebels of a past generation had surrendered there in 1798, only for Crown forces to break the terms and massacre them.

Whether or not their captors knew of the site’s historical significance, it was a bleakly fitting place to store the latest crop of subversives. A city boy, Lawless was discomforted by the wide plains that stretched to the distant horizon whenever he looked outside his confinement, as well as awed at the British military strength on display elsewhere in the Curragh.[6]

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Prison huts in the Rath Camp

When peace presented itself in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Lawless seized the chance. His acceptance of the controversial terms put him at odds with certain individuals, though this, if anything, only confirmed to him the correctness of his decision.

“Those of us who had any previous knowledge of men like Rory O’Connor and de Valera were not impressed by their pose of pure-souled patriotism,” Lawless wrote. “I had had a slight experience of Rory O’Connor in Arbour Hill and the Rath Camp and put him down as a crank.”[7]

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Prisoners inside the Rath Camp, with Joseph Lawless on the left

Getting Out

Crank or not, and whatever else could be said about him, O’Connor was most certainly not one to sit back and do nothing. Deprived of one goal, he soon found another.

Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at the Rath Camp was David E. Ryan of the Dublin Brigade. “The morning was bitterly cold and a drive of 30 miles was far from pleasant,” as he described the journey in a convoy of ten lorries, with two armoured cars at either end and a pair of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Clearly, the British authorities were taking no chances.

The passengers in Ryan’s transport passed the time by singing patriotic Irish songs, along with a parody of Rule Britannia, much to the amusement of the soldiers guarding them, if only because it infuriated their officer in charge. But ribaldry could only go so far in maintaining morale, and it was a tired and famished group who reached the Curragh, with little in the way of comfort to look forward to:

For the first week, on account of our changed addresses, we received none of the usual parcels from our friends outside, and to say that we were often hungry during that week would be putting it mildly.

Little wonder, then, that Ryan’s thoughts turned to the means of getting out and soon.

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Prisons seated inside the Rath Camp

For assistance, he turned to O’Connor, who he recognised, despite the fake name the other man went by. Side-lined O’Connor may have been over the prison hierarchy, but his record and standing still inspired respect, at least in Ryan: “He had often planned escapes for others. Now he was to have the pleasure of planning his own.”

The esteem went both ways when Ryan said he would reveal his scheme only on condition of being one of its beneficiaries. “That’s the spirit,” O’Connor replied. “You can do more outside than here. There are too many locked up.”

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Guard tower in the Rath Camp

And so Ryan explained how he had befriended Jerry Gaffney, a fellow IRA member who, while working as a carpenter on the premises – his true loyalty unbeknownst to his employers – had already helped to smuggle out some letters for Ryan. Though O’Connor was at first uncertain as to how far this stranger could be trusted, Ryan vouched for him, and so it was arranged for the three of them to meet the next day in one of the disused huts in the camp.

After reviewing their options, it was assessed that, in the knowledge that the wardens were tightening security, three men at most could make the attempt. Two would obviously be O’Connor and Ryan, as per their deal, but when the latter approached a prospective candidate for the third, the man – who Ryan refrained from naming in his account – declined on account of ill health. With time being of the essence, Ryan and O’Connor decided to proceed anyway with just the pair of them.

Caught Napping

The plan was for Gaffney to procure workmen’s tools and clothing, to be hidden in the same hut until O’Connor and Ryan could walk out, so disguised, amongst the actual workmen at the end of a shift at 5:30 pm. That was until, with two hours to go, O’Connor abruptly cancelled:

The tone of his remark did not invite questions and he went away hurriedly, but knowing Rory well I knew that he had some good reason for calling it off.

The reason, as O’Connor later explained to Ryan, was that if they absconded in the afternoon, the 6:30 roll-call would expose the two missing names. While such discovery was inevitable, O’Connor wanted to put as much distance between them and their jailers beforehand. And so it was agreed to go ahead the next day, at 12:30, which would give their absence almost the whole day of going unnoticed – that is, if all went as it should.

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Prisoners inside the yard of the Rath Camp

Ryan began having his doubts when he and O’Connor approached the exit. They had donned the dungarees and equipment, and pulled their caps low over faces smeared with dust as a finishing touch, but still Ryan fretted. The tension grew almost unbearable for him:

As we approached the gate I could feel my heart beating quickly, my breathing became jerky and my senses began to weaken.

He kept himself together in time to present his pass to the soldier on duty who, to his silent horror, knew him already as an inmate. Nonetheless, after the longest of pauses, the guard waved him through, whether because the dirt and overalls were a sufficient disguise or, if he recognised Ryan, due to natural human sympathy.

Once out of earshot, O’Connor exulted: “Thank God, they have been caught napping again.”

The fugitives cut through the fields towards Kildare Railway Station, where they bought two tickets, paying a little extra for returns with the money Gaffney had provided. When the authorities asked around for any suspicious duos who might have passed, who would think of the pair who were apparently planning to come back?

After stopping at Lucan, they were walking towards the trams when a lorry-load of Auxiliaries drove down the street towards them. Had their absence been rumbled? O’Connor feared so.

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Auxiliaries on a Crossley tender

“I’m afraid it’s all up but walk on,” he told Ryan. The Auxiliaries stopped them but only to ask for directions to Newbridge, which O’Connor politely provided.

That night, with Rory I had the pleasure of meeting and being congratulated by Michael Collins, Gearóid O’Sullivan and other members of the GHQ staff, all of whom were delighted to get a first-hand account of the first escape of prisoners from an internment camp in Ireland.[8]

The next day, in Dublin, O’Connor ran into Michael Knightly, a journalist who he had supplied with inside information about the past escapes he organised. It was a pleasant surprise for Knightly:

I had known he was a prisoner at the Curragh and I asked: “When did you get out?” Speaking in his usual slow manner, he said: “Ah, I escaped yesterday.”[9]

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Patrick Moran, one of the IRA prisoners executed on the 14th March 1921

David Neligan was another friend who spotted him about town, wearing a beard and clerical garb on the quays. When O’Connor appeared at an IRA gathering on the 14th March 1921, it was to great acclaim, the story of his exploit already in circulation. The celebratory mood was tinged, however, with the knowledge that six of their comrades had been executed that morning in Mounjoy. The solemnity extended to the rest of the city, where the trams stopped for the day, workers took time off and those walking the streets did so in silence.[10]

Suspicious Minds

And so the war dragged on. Exactly how it would end was undetermined: not until complete victory was achieved? Or would some sort of compromise be necessary? “If we clatther them hard enough we might get Dominion Home Rule,” said Dick McKee when asked that question, an indication that he leaned towards the latter resolution.[11]

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Cathal Brugha

These opposing viewpoints were in the air, if not quite in the open, during a couple of sessions of the IRA Executive in Parnell Square. On these two occasions, Cathal Brugha, as Minister for Defence and with characteristic pugnaciousness, accused Michael Collins of communicating with Dublin Castle without authorisation. Collins denied any such impropriety, while insisting on his prerogative to accept any information that came his way, whatever its origin.

On a seemingly unrelated note, at another meeting, Collins announced his resignation as Adjutant-General, requesting instead the role of Director of Intelligence. Brugha offered no protest; if anything, he seemed pleased at this development. Perhaps he thought this would clip the wings of the uppity Corkman, for the new post was not, on the face of it, particularly important.

When they were done, O’Connor turned to the man sitting next to him and asked Richard Walsh, the representative of the Connaught IRA, for a quiet word. The two departed from Parnell Square towards Parliament Street, while Walsh mulled over what had just happened. After they reached the Royal Exchange Hotel and found themselves a drink and a quiet corner, O’Connor unburdened himself of his concerns:

Rory was very worried about what Collins’s move meant…When summing up the events of the meeting, Rory O’Connor and myself came to the conclusion that while intelligence, its organisation and efficient establishment, was very necessary, it was also very dangerous as it had a boomerang quality that could hit back in an ugly way.

If intelligence-mining thus needed to be treated with care, was Collins the one to do so? Going by Brugha’s previous remarks about links between him and Dublin Castle, both O’Connor and Walsh were thinking not, as:

The danger would always be there that Collins and his group might use the intelligence system to make contacts to start negotiations with the enemy and make certain commitments that would prove a very serious handicap when proper official negotiations would be taken in hand.

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Michael Collins

Walsh did not provide a date for this discussion but it was presumably early in the war, before talks between the British Government and the Republican underground began in earnest. Unlike Brugha, who locked horns with Collins whenever he could, O’Connor had previously shown no indication that he held anything but trust towards him; indeed, the two had cooperated on a number of the famed prison-breaks.[12]

If Walsh’s story is accurate, while accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the factionism that would plague, and finally kill, the revolutionary movement was already incubating beneath the surface.

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Dermot O’Hegarty

In a further hint of things to come, another man, Dermot O’Hegarty, walked into the hotel and saw O’Connor and Walsh together. O’Hegarty was a close ally of Collins and it is telling that, when he joined the conversation, an argument soon grew between him and O’Connor. So heated was the exchange that Walsh felt it necessary to call over some of their mutual friends before things got out of hand.[13]

That would come later.

A Surprise Extreme

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Piaras Béaslaí

Still, even after the worse had happened, the past camaraderie could linger on. Piaras Béaslaí and O’Connor were to be mortal enemies, yet, when composing his memoirs, Béaslaí wrote of the other with respect: “He was a man of considerable ability in his particular brand of activity, and…took a leading part in the planning of the most successful achievements of the Volunteers.”

Among these deeds were the jail-breaks of 1919, of which Béaslaí was twice a beneficiary: from Mountjoy in March and then Strangeways, Manchester, in October. The bonds between brothers-in-arms, and perhaps gratitude on Béaslaí’s part, drew together the two men – and future foes – closely enough for Béaslaí to leave a detailed pen-portrait:

He was a man of education and culture who concealed a strong sense of humour under an air of gloomy solemnity. He was dark haired, of medium stature, slightly built, hollow-cheeked, and seemingly not very robust. He spoke in a deep cavernous voice.

However tight they may have been, Béaslaí was still taken aback by the direction O’Connor took when their cause came to a fork in the road. Previously, O’Connor had not seemed “very ‘extreme’ in his views,” but then, Béaslaí was not alone in misjudging him, for “the extreme line of action taken by him after the passing of the Treaty was a surprise to many who knew him well.”[14]

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The Irish delegation in London which resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, December 1921

It is possible that not even O’Connor initially knew which way to turn. When Collins returned to Dublin in December 1921 with the rest of the Irish Plenipotentiaries, having put pen to the paper of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the first things he did was to hold a forum of IRA luminaries, including O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Gearóid O’Sullivan, in the Mansion House. Collins could sign whatever he wanted before him, but he was not naïve enough to think that the opinions of the men with guns could be overlooked.

The conference went sufficiently well for Collins to preside over the subsequent luncheon at the Gresham Hotel. Among those present was Father Patrick J. Doyle, being on amicable terms with many of the men at the table, including O’Connor, who had joked in the past about how the priest would end up on the scaffold for his seditious acquaintances. As the party ate, Father Doyle was able to observe the demeanour of his friend:

Although Rory had voted at the Volunteer meeting against acceptance of the Treaty, he was quite reconciled to abide by the majority decision of the Volunteers in favour of it.

Far from brooding on what had happened, O’Connor appeared to be looking forward to the future:

During the lunch, he took part in an animated discussion about the formation that the new Irish Army should adopt and urged very enthusiastically the adoption of the Swiss system of formation.

And yet, as Doyle observed, “a few months later Rory was out in armed opposition to the Provisional Government.” The whole thing remained a mystery to the priest, even after the passage of time:

I have never yet met any of the Volunteer officers who took up arms in that cause who could give a coherent account of the tragic split that ensued after the acceptance of the majority decision.[15]

From the start, however, there were warning signs. Liam Archer worked under O’Connor in the IRA Engineering Department, and they were in the latter’s office on Marlborough Street, Dublin, when word of the Treaty reached them. Archer was as shocked as anyone at the idea of an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and asked O’Connor, as they walked to Collins’ own base in the Gresham, what they were to do:

He answered without hesitation – Oh, we must work it for all its worth, then after a slight pause he added But if I could get enough to support me I would oppose it wholeheartedly.[16]

In that, O’Connor would be true to his word.

The Soldier’s Song

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Ernie O’Malley

Even before the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and while the delegates to that national body debated the merits of the Anglo-Irish agreement, O’Connor met with four other senior IRA officers – Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows – for a parliament of their own on Heytesbury Street. The house at number 71 had been a reliable bolt-hole during the fight with the British and now it would serve as a venue for a conspiracy – this time against their own side.

“Rory’s eyes were sombre,” O’Malley noticed. “I noticed the grey streaks in his black hair.”

While all present were of like mind that the Treaty was unacceptable, binding as it did Ireland inside the British Empire, they were less certain on where the rest of the IRA stood. O’Connor wanted to waste no further time. “They mean to enforce to Treaty, but we must organise,” he said.

He was in favour of breaking away from GHQ as soon as the Dáil debates were over, seemingly not interested in whatever the result was. O’Malley approved of this bold course of action, as did Robinson, with Lynch keeping his own counsel – the odd man out, even then – and Mellows in less of a hurry, as he assured the others that the IRA would never tolerate the Treaty anyway. That the Dáil or the public might differ in opinion did not seem to occur to anyone, at least not to the extent it was worth considering.

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Liam Mellows

Mellows’ wait-and-see attitude carried the room, perhaps because no one wanted to make a definite decision, and it was agreed between them to keep in touch while seeking whatever allies that they could. “Rory’s quiet humour broke the gravity,” wrote O’Malley in his memoirs, “soon we were chatting and laughing.”[17]

It was no great surprise, at least to O’Malley, when the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty. Éamon de Valera resigned as its president in protest, though he appealed at a meeting of military men to put politics aside for the sake of unity and peace: a ship that had already sailed, to O’Malley’s mind, and to O’Connor’s as well.

The two met again when O’Malley dropped by the other’s house in Monkstown. O’Connor greeted him at the door, happy to see him, having sent word, which O’Malley had missed, for another, more exclusive, conclave that was to take place that evening in Dublin. While waiting, they killed time by playing records on the gramophone in the front room. The last tune was The Soldier’s Song, the anthem to the revolution, except O’Connor misplaced the needle of the gramophone, which drew out the notes and distorted the lyrics; appropriately so, thought O’Malley, a sign of the mess they were all in.[18]

irish_national_anthem_28191629Out in the Open

The pair took the tram to Grafton Street and then walked to Nelson’s Pillar, continuing on to the back of Marlborough Street where O’Connor conducted his work. More soon came, coming up the wooden steps to the main office: Liam Lynch, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire, Seán Russell and others.

The room was not well lit. We sat on chairs forming three sides of a square, which Rory’s desk completed. A prismatic compass, a map measurer and a celluloid protractor stood against the ledge of the desk. To one side of them were coloured mapping inks and small slender mapping pens. Maps hung on the wall – a large scale map of Dublin; a map of Ireland with the divisional areas inserted in red pencil.

O’Connor’s skin, O’Malley saw, looked darker than usual. The light from the windows touched his cheeks and cast the rest of his face in shadow.

Once he was made chairman, O’Connor got to the point: GHQ could not to be trusted. The IRA still stood but not for long, as O’Connor was sure it would be disbanded and replaced with tame pro-Treaty cuckoos. Already the Provisional Government was recruiting men for such a move, while those who might oppose it were confused and directionless.

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Free State soldiers on parade

With time thus of the essence, it was agreed by the men in the room, as O’Connor jotted down the minutes, for an IRA Convention to be held, the first in a long while. If the Provisional Government was to refuse one, then an independent command was to be formed at once, both as an alternative and a challenge.

Such was the mood that when Richard Mulcahy, shortly after O’Connor’s military meeting, called one of his own in the Banba Hall, Parnell Square, O’Malley attended with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat. Pro-Treaty officers sat in one half of the semi-circle of chairs, Anti-Treatyites making up the other, as if to formally announce the break.

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Banba Hall, 20 Parnell Square, Dublin

Choosing to overlook this unfortunate placement, Mulcahy, now the Minister of Defence, announced that their forces would continue to be the Republican Army. But O’Connor was not buying it. “A name will not make it so,” he said caustically as soon as Mulcahy had finished his piece.

The meeting escalated to Collins being called a traitor, provoking the Corkman to his feet in a rage. Mulcahy defused the tension with a few quiet words – an impressive feat, considering the passions simmering in the room. In a gesture of good faith, he proposed that the Anti-Treatyites appoint two of their number to attend GHQ meetings and ensure that nothing untoward was done.

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Liam Lynch

O’Connor asked for some privacy in another room to discuss this and, when there, asked the others what they thought. Most wanted to break away then and there with no further time wasted but Lynch insisted they give Mulcahy’s idea a try. As Lynch was in charge of the Cork and Kerry brigades in the First Southern Division, the largest and best-armed of the IRA blocs outside Dublin, the rest had no choice but to comply.

At least Mulcahy was open to the idea of an overdue IRA Convention. The Army had begun as an independent body, with its own procedures and policies and, for some like O’Connor, it was time to revive it as such.[19]

Law of the Jungle

Lynch had inadvertently exposed two profound and disturbing truths. Firstly, while the Anti-Treatyites could or would no longer work with their pro-Treaty counterparts, they were scarcely more united among themselves.

The second was that, for all the lofty talk, strength was what really counted. This was quickly grasped by O’Malley, who put the lesson to the test when he returned from Dublin to where he held sway as O/C of the Second Southern Division, encompassing IRA units from Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Of the five brigades under his command, four were willing to follow his lead in resisting the Treaty, which meant, in more immediate terms, his former superiors in GHQ.

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IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick, 1922

The first opportunity to make their discontent known was in Limerick in March 1922. British troops had withdrawn, as per the Treaty terms, leaving their barracks open for the taking, and O’Malley was determined that the Pro-Treatyites would not be the ones benefitting. A stand-off ensued as local IRA men from the opposing – and increasingly belligerent – factions hastened to seize and secure whatever positions they could in the city. Reinforcements came from Dublin and Clare for the Pro-Treatyites, while O’Malley was joined by Tipperary and Cork cohorts.[20]

Not even two months had passed since the Treaty was signed and the country was already on the brink of fratricide – still, better sooner than later, in O’Malley’s view.

img_2562This was the argument he put to O’Connor when O’Malley briefly returned to Dublin, but O’Connor, having been so adamant at the start, now pulled back in the eleventh hour. There was still a chance at a bloodless resolution, he told O’Malley, as he turned down the request for aid to be sent. O’Malley and his allies were on their own in Limerick, though O’Connor, rather lamely, expressed the hope that all would work out for the best.[21]

Things did – briefly.

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Richard Mulcahy

Negotiations in Limerick led to a face-saving agreement for both sides to back down with honour intact, proof that the split was reversible and conflict not inevitable. That is, until later that month, on the 22nd March, when Mulcahy announced that any IRA convention, such as the one set to take place in four days’ time on the 26th – which he had been previously agreeable towards – was “contrary to the orders of the General Headquarters staff, and will be sectional in character.” Any officer in attendance could consider themselves stripped of rank.[22]

For those who had distrusted Mulcahy and the rest of the Provisional Government from the start, this was all the vindication they needed. Just after Mulcahy’s proscription, on that same evening, Irish reporters, as well as ones in Dublin on behalf of British and American newspapers, received an invitation to a press conference in Suffolk Street.

As the Republican Party had its offices there, the pressmen who accepted might have expected the presence of someone like Éamon de Valera – no longer the President of the Republic, but still the most recognised politician in the anti-Treaty ranks. Instead, in walked a relative stranger who took his place at the large table in the centre of the room before the assembled newshounds.

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Rory O’Connor, delivering an address

Man: Gentlemen, I understand you want to know something about army matters.

Journalist: Who are you?

Man: I am Roderic O’Connor, Director of Engineering, General Headquarters.

Another journalist: Do you represent GHQ?

O’Connor: I do not represent GHQ. I represent 80 per cent of the IRA.

Not Peace But a Sword

In regards to the remaining 20 per cent, O’Connor said, when asked further, he hoped in time to win over 19 per cent. “Dáil Éireann,” he continued:

…has done an act which has no moral right to do. The Volunteers are not going into the British Empire, and stand for liberty.

This defiance on O’Connor’s part, and that of the 80 percent of the Army if he spoke true, had been some time in the making, as O’Connor went on to explain.

While the Treaty, the immoral act O’Connor had spoken of, was being debated at the start of the year, IRA officers from the South and the West of the country had come to him and Liam Mellows to say how badly they felt let down. To right this wrong, an IRA convention was set to be held four days hence, on the 26th March, and though the Provisional Government had banned it, the event would go ahead anyway.

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Attendees at the IRA Convention, the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 26th March 1922

Which was only proper, considering how:

The Army feels that the Dáil has let down the Republic and has created a dilemma for the Army and the country. The Army feels it must right itself. It has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, whilst giving its allegiance also to the Dáil.

Such a choice was no choice at all, in O’Connor’s strident view. He was, however, hazier on a number of questions put to him.

Journalist: Take it that the Irish people vote 80 per cent, or more, in favour of the policy adopted by the Dáil, will the attitude of the 80 per cent of the Army whom you claim to represent be the same towards them as you say it is now towards the Dáil?

O’Connor: I cannot answer for the Army on that. That will be a question for the new Executive which will be set up next week.

c389amon_de_valera
Éamon de Valera

Journalist: Is the army going to obey Mr de Valera or the people, through those they put in control?

O’Connor: President de Valera asked that the army obey the existing GHQ, but the army for which I speak cannot, because the Minister of Defence has broken his agreement.

As for how Mulcahy, the Minister in question, had done so, O’Connor explained that it was by asking IRA members to join an alternative army, one set up for the purpose of keeping Ireland inside the British Empire. Mulcahy might deny it, but O’Connor held that it was true all the same. As for the allegiance of the IRA, that answer was obvious:

The Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.

The Dáil was certainly not such a government, at least not how O’Connor saw it. Certainly, if the Dáil was in fact the Government, then the IRA was presently in revolt against it. O’Connor’s tone was matter-of-fact, as it was when questioned further on the obvious consequences of soldiers making their own decisions.

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IRA men with rifles, in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Journalist: Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then?

O’Connor: You can take it that way if you like.

Journalist: Then the convention won’t make for peace?

O’Connor: It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.[23]

To be continued in: Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

References

[1] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 267-8

[2] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 131

[3] Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), pp. 79, 127

[4] Lawless, pp. 389-91

[5] Ibid, pp. 400-1

[6] Ibid, pp. 402-3, 405

[7] Ibid, p. 432

[8] Ryan, Daniel E. (BMH / WS 1673, pp. 5-10

[9] Knighty, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 16

[10] Neligan, p. 127 ; O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 131

[11] University College Dublin Archives, Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[12] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), pp. 71-3

[13] Ibid, p. 76

[14] Béaslaí, pp. 130-1

[15] Doyle, Patrick J (BMH / WS 807), pp. 21, 32-3

[16] Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[18] Ibid, pp. 65-7

[19] Ibid, pp. 67-72

[20] Ibid, pp. 72-4, 76-7

[21] Ibid, pp. 80-1

[22] Irish Times, 23/03/1922

[23] Evening Herald, 22/03/1922

Bibliography

Books

Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doyle, Patrick J., WS 807, p. 33

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043

Ryan, Daniel E., WS 1673

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

Newspapers

Evening Herald

Irish Times

University College Dublin Archives

Michael Hayes Papers

Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

A continuation of: Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

An Informative Discussion

Ireland was at war and on dual fronts. The first was the official one, as part of which the country contributed men and munitions to the British campaigns in the fields of France and Flanders. But there was a second struggle, the one at home which grew in the shadows, waiting to emerge. By the start of 1918, these two theatres of war threatened to merge when the demand for extra resources on the Western Front made conscription for Ireland an attractive option for the British Government, if a very dangerous one, considering the strength of Irish feeling against such an imposition.

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An anti-conscription demonstration, 1918

Valentine Jackson was working for the Rathdown Rural District Council, Co. Dublin, when an officer from the British Army – by the rank of Major, Jackson believed – stopped by, asking to see the man responsible for the city streets. Jackson led him to the desk of Rory O’Connor, the Engineer of Paving. After O’Connor assured his caller that anything said would be in confidence, the Major explained the reason for his visit, saying that:

…there would be extensive street fighting in Dublin if conscription were enforced and that they would mainly use tanks, some of them of a heavy type, in such fighting. He wanted O’Connor to give him a list of streets which would be unsafe for the heaviest tanks, on account of sewers and other undergrounds works.

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Rory O’Connor

Playing the part of a dutiful civil servant perfectly, O’Connor asked for more information on the vehicles in question, such as their weights and load distribution, to better assess which streets would be riskiest for them. These details the Major did not know, though he promised to provide them later. The two men chatted for a while on the finer points of urban combat before the Major left, “very well pleased with the interview,” according to Jackson, who apparently had been hovering about to witness the exchange.

The Major had apparently never asked himself why a pen-pusher would know so much about street fighting, particularly where Dublin was concerned. During this same period of uncertainty, O’Connor called in on Jackson’s own office, located in the same building.

He wanted my opinion on a proposal that in the event of an attempt to enforce conscription the water supply should be cut off from all the city military establishments.

Not for nothing was Dublin Corporation viewed by the British authorities as a hotbed of sedition. While sympathetic to O’Connor’s idea, Jackson did not think it practical, explaining that the British Army would surely be competent enough to restart water pipes in the event of them being blocked or cut. Besides, fire hydrants could be used with hose-lines to provide water if necessary.

This was a setback to O’Connor, but he remained:

…anxious to consider the matter further so we spent the next few days driving around the city barracks during which he noted the size and exact position of the various branch pipes together with their valves and fittings.[1]

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Ernie O’Malley

Such contingencies proved unnecessary, for the Government thought better of the idea and cancelled its plans for conscription in Ireland. The two sides, in the form of the British state and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had narrowly avoided a bloody showdown – and bloody it would undoubtedly have been. While discussing the situation with Michael Collins, while the threat of conscription still hovered in the air, Ernie O’Malley was handed notes detailing plans for the demolition of bridges, railways and engines throughout the country, all of which were signed by O’Connor as Director of Engineering for the IRA GHQ.[2]

Later, O’Malley would meet O’Connor, as one senior IRA figure to another. Like many, he would find himself intrigued by the other man’s looks and enigmatic personality. “Rory O’Connor talked with a sense of humour; the grooves tightening his cheek muscles while his eyes smiled,” he later wrote. “He always had what I called an interior look.”[3]

Plans for Plans

To O’Connor, the end of conscription as a potential flashpoint was but a delay in the conflict he had been working towards, even before the Easter Rising of 1916 had transmogrified the Irish public mood. The anxious peace that had settled over the country could not last indefinitely and, when the storm at last broke out, O’Connor and his comrades would be armed and ready.

At least, in theory.

If the British authorities were often woefully blind to the insurgency brewing right beneath their noses – as in the case of the Major discussing strategy with a disingenuously helpful clerk – then the rebel underground only reached a state of readiness through slow trial and painful error. In early 1920, O’Connor came to Jackson with another request: could he find a quiet place out of town in which to test some explosives recently raided from a British Army depot?

In response:

I selected a site by the east side of the Upper Reservoir at Roundwood then under construction, but on which work was suspended. The site was Corporation property, well away from any habitation and contained a couple of derelict houses.

Jackson joined O’Connor in testing out the pilfered goods. As no one came to investigate the six or seven blasts, he had evidently chosen the spot well. The same could not be said for the explosives, being of poor quality as they were. “O’Connor was disappointed,” Jackson later wrote. “He attributed the result to deterioration of the material.”[4]

Still, one step at a time. Even if munitions were not easy to come by, then the IRA at least had an organisation structure to build on. Part of this was its Engineering Department, formed in the autumn of 1917 by O’Connor, and consisting of men with similarly technical minds. One of whom was Jack Plunkett, brother of the late 1916 Signatory, and a long-time friend of O’Connor. Together they pored over a large Ordinance Survey map of Ireland, plotting out the best methods of attack, with a particular emphasis on the railways lines that the British Army often used. These plans “Rory and I practically laid out alone,” according to Plunkett.

planning
Jack Plunkett

Even many years later, the memories of the time the two men spent together in shared enterprise could move him. “I would like to say a good deal about Rory but it hurts too much.”[5]

The 5th Battalion

Another team member was Liam Archer. Like O’Connor and Plunkett, he had been ‘out’ in Easter Week, and continued on in the IRA as a signal officer for the Dublin Brigade. Two years after the Rising:

When conscription was threatened in 1918 I was transferred to the staff of Rory O’Connor who had, I think, shortly before been made Director of Engineering. It was decided to organise a Company of Engineers under direct control of GHQ with the special mission of carrying out extensive sabotage of communications in the event of conscription being imposed.

From this, the 5th Dublin Battalion, or the Engineering Corps, was formed. While initially a Dublin matter, a two week-long course was set up for budding engineers from other IRA units in the country, with O’Connor, Plunkett and Archer acting as lecturers. “In time, we developed training in the use of explosives and demolition of rails and bridges and the mining of roads,” Archer recalled.

The shelving of conscription did nothing to change the IRA agenda: to fight British rule with every tool at hand. As this struggle intensified in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, O’Connor issued a prohibition against members of the 5th Battalion partaking in raids, ambushes or other standard IRA missions, however keen they were to do so. Such men were specialists, O’Connor ruled, and so were not to risk themselves in operations that ‘foot soldiers’ could do.

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Irish Volunteers/IRA

The commanders of the other four Dublin battalions did not disagree, as Archer described:

They considered, first, that the opportunities for such should be the preference of their units and, second, that it would be impossible for them that the 5th Battalion was carrying out, or had carried out, an operation in their areas, and that this fact could gravely endanger the success of their operations, and the safety of their personnel.

By keeping the 5th Battalion removed from the others, it was hoped that they would avoid getting their wires crossed. Even after O’Connor was promoted to another command and this prohibition of his officially lifted, the engineers of the 5th Battalion were only used when their particular skills were necessary.[6]

Life was becoming risky enough as it was.

Prison Plans

There was no formal declaration of war, no grand gesture, no Pearl Harbour or Fort Sumter or Gulf of Tonkin. Historians were to point to the Soloheadbeg Ambush in January 1919 as the trigger but that was merely the first in a series of incidents that slowly proliferated into a full-blown insurgency. Until then, the various IRA units limited their operations to one-offs, designed for a specific goal rather than the big picture.

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IRA Flying Column

In March 1919, Michael Lynch, O/C of the Fingal Brigade, answered the summons to the Dublin IRA headquarters at Gardiner Street, where O’Connor inquired about the amount of ‘gun cotton’ available. When Lynch asked him what for:

Rory informed me that the idea underlying his request was the blowing down of the boundary wall of Mountjoy Prison, in order to effect the release of some of our men, whose presence was vital to us in our organisation scheme and who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in Mountjoy.

While Lynch had access to some such ‘gun cotton’, he was horrified at how much O’Connor wanted. “My God, man,” he said, “if you use that, you kill every prisoner in Mountjoy!”

All the amount needed was five to ten pounds, insisted Lynch. As an avid reader of the American Scientific Supplement, Lynch considered himself an expert on the matter. So did O’Connor, who insisted on the original figure stated. When the two men could not agree, the explosives notion was dropped. If Lynch was correct in his fears, then the Mountjoy residents were luckier than they could have known.

robert-childers-barton-td
Robert Barton

Others present at the meeting chipped in with their own ideas, the best being to waylay the van transporting the prisoner in mind – Robert Barton – to Dublin Castle for interrogation. As they had inside knowledge of this, the IRA men were able to plan for when and where: the van moving down Berkeley Road, to be blocked by a handcart with a forty-foot-long ladder fixed across, allowing those on standby to rush in.

When the day came, all worked as it should – save for one small snag.

“Barton was not in it,” Lynch recalled. “We indulged in a fair amount of bad language at our ill luck.”

Shortly afterwards, O’Connor met with Lynch again, showing him the letter from Barton that had been smuggled out. To O’Connor’s dismay, the prisoner was insisting that he escape on a certain date, which just happened to be a night of a full moon. Having already filed through the bars of his cell-door, Barton would make his way to the yard and then throw a handkerchief-wrapped brick over the outer wall to let the others know where he was.

From there, they were to help him over and out – easier said than done, as O’Connor griped.

Nonetheless, an opportunity was an opportunity.[7]

Breathless

peadar_clancy
Peadar Clancy

On the 16th March 1919, the team of men from Dublin’s G Company gathered for their briefing by Peadar Clancy, their commanding officer, and O’Connor. The mission was drawn out on a blackboard as each participant was allocated his position on the Canal Bank, near the north-west corner of Mountjoy Prison. Some were to wait by the wall, hugging the shadows, while others paced the canal, batons in hand, in case any policemen came their way.

“Each man knew what was expected,” described Patrick J. Kelly, one of the group, “and the risk of a slip up on the part of anyone.”

At the chime of midnight, a rope-ladder was tossed up to the top of the wall. After all the talk of explosions and the drama of an open-air hijack, Barton’s liberation was to come by relatively simple means – that is, if all went as it should.

The first throw of the ladder failed to clear the twenty-foot height of the wall. The second succeeded and the man who had cast it waited with his hands on his end to steady the prisoner’s climb on the other side. However, as Kelly watched:

No strain came on the rope and we thought the plan on the inside had miscarried. We were wondering what to do next when a small stone was thrown over from the inside to let us know he was there and that something was amiss.

The other man shifted the rope-ladder into a better position, allowing Barton to make the climb to the top of the wall, from where he jumped down into the blanket outstretched for him by several of the others.

Unfortunately:

His weight was too much for the men holding it and he had a bad bump on the ground but escaped injury, and was soon on his way to the waiting car with Rory and Peadar.

O’Connor and Barton sat in the back, while Kelly got in besides the driver. With revolvers kept ready in the event of being pulled over by the police, the men drove through the darkened city to Donnybrook. O’Connor and Barton disembarked at Herbert Park and thanked the other two before walking out into the night.

The Irish revolution had scored a coup as “Bob Barton…was considered a very important man in the movement,” according to Kelly. Afterwards “it was very interesting to read the papers next day with their accounts of the escape and their theories as to the way it was managed.”[8]

One of the newspapers in question, the Evening Herald, was helped by how one of its staff, Michal Knightly, doubled as an IRA intelligence officer. O’Connor visited him in his office immediately after Barton’s flight, fully aware of its propaganda value. He was so breathless with excitement that Knightly had to wait while O’Connor rested in a chair before providing the scoop.[9]

Barton would later go on to put his name to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, more than two years later, in December 1921. Whether O’Connor would have been so keen to spring him had he known…but that is a different story.

Mountjoy Sensation

For the moment, the only story that mattered was the one Knightly had obligingly emblazoned in the papers of the Evening Herald:

THE SENSATION!

MR. R.C. BARTON. M.P., MISSING FROM MOUNTJOY

A POLITE LETTER

The last line was a reference to Barton’s cheeky parting-shot to his gaolers, a left-behind note in the style of a disappointed hotel guest: since he was leaving due to the discomfort of his accommodation, could his baggage be kept safe until sent for?[10]

Showing an evident delight at official discomfort, Knightly reported how:

The prison authorities…are “out of their minds over the whole affair,” and “at their wits’ ends” to know how the prisoner escaped.”[11]

Thirteen days later, the Evening Herald would have a similar story to tell. Like every good sequel, this one was bigger and more dramatic than before:

MOUNTJOY SENSATION

20 SINN FEIN PRISONERS ESCAPE

If the secrets behind Barton’s flight had remained as such, then the prison-break on the 29th March 1919, conducted brazenly in broad daylight, was anything but a mystery:

It appears that some of their number suddenly turned on the wardens who were in charge of them, and held them down while their comrades were arranging a rope ladder over a thirty-foot wall…the first thing the outside public noticed was the extraordinary spectacle of men sliding down a rope from the top of the jail wall to the canal bank.[12]

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Dick McKee

“The escape exceeded our most sanguine expectations,” recalled one of the escapees, Piaras Béaslaí, who credited O’Connor and Dick McKee, the O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade, with the planning of the feat. But it had initially been touch and go, when a sudden snowstorm almost cancelled the daily allotment of recreation outside in the yard. Thankfully, the weather cleared in time for exercise-hour to go ahead at 3 pm.

A prisoner signalled from a window to the IRA watchman on Claude Road that the escapees-to-be were in place. When a whistle was sounded from the outside, the prisoners dashed for the designated part of the wall, while a rope-ladder appeared at the top and came down for them to climb. Once outside, the freed men ran along the canal bank to where a rescue party were waiting with bicycles to take them into town, where they were practically home safe, according to Béaslaí:

The moment they got out in the streets among the people they were made safe, for everybody befriended them. Such was the famous daylight escape from Mountjoy, which seemed the culmination of a series of bloodless triumphs for the Irish Volunteers.[13]

“How the ladder came to be fastened is a mystery,” added the Evening Herald. If the item in question was the hero of the hour, then it was also the sole casualty, being found discarded next to the canal. “It is now in the hands of the authorities.”[14]

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Mountjoy Prison

O/C Escapes

Replacing the lost item became a priority, for there were other Irishmen languishing in captivity as political prisoners, among being Béaslaí again, who did not enjoy his liberty for long before being rearrested while cycling in Finglas village. The prison authorities learnt their lesson by transferring Béaslaí out of Ireland and to Strangeways, Manchester, to deter any further escapes. Béaslaí was not cowed, instead remaining in surreptitious contact with Michael Collins, the two engaging in a long-distance discourse on the best way to spring Béaslaí once more.[15]

austin_stackTo this end, Collins dispatched O’Connor to England. A coded letter to Austin Stack, another inmate in Strangeways, was signed from his “loving cousin Maud”, assuring him that “we are all busy preparing for the examination. Professor Rory has arrived. He is a very nice man.”[16]

Even if the past two rescues had been roaring successes – save for Barton’s spectacles, which had fallen off as he cleared the wall – those responsible were not going to rest on their laurels. As a process, prison-breaking would be inspected, improved and, as much as possible, perfected.

O’Connor relished the challenge. Dubbed the ‘O/C. Escapes’ by Jack Plunkett, he “frequently talked to me about it and he got not only pleasure but amusement out of it.”

A replacement ladder was procured, after first being tested for the lightness of its rope, balanced with weights at the end. In delegating Plunkett for such work:

Rory, while being extremely reticent, gave me all the information I needed to obtain the necessary material and as was the habit in those times, I always refrained from asking unnecessary questions.

These tight lips earned the respect of another consummate professional. “I notice your staff don’t ask any questions,” Dick McKee told O’Connor approvingly.

Strangeways

By the end of his investigation, Plunkett could provide a finished product that, while formidable, presented a practical challenge:

The Strangeways rope-ladder was very bulky, as it had wooden rings and two pairs of restraining ropes, one pair outside and one pair inside the wall, and it had to be carried through Manchester on a handcart with a piece of sacking thrown over it.[17]

The first date for the rescue, the 11th October 1919, was postponed when the ladder in question did not arrive in time. A message hidden in a pot of jam to Strangeways alerted the Irish captives that the next attempt was to be on the 25th.

As with Mountjoy, the rescue team selected a particular section of the wall, this one being next to a street with no houses and thus less civilians to get in the way. All the same, members of the Manchester IRA company, formed from Irish émigrés in the city who were willing to do their part for the cause, stood at either end to block it off, while two more paced the wall, disguised as window-cleaners.

“When everything was in readiness,” described Patrick O’Donoghue, the Manchester O/C, “Rory O’Connor blew a whistle which was the pre-arranged signal and this signal was answered from inside by one of the prisoners.”

The new, improved rope-ladder was thrown up but failed to fall down low enough on the other side for the inmates to reach. Two more attempts were made to no avail and, just when all looked lost, Peadar Clancy – who had also come over from Dublin – quickly placed an extension ladder against the wall and climbed to shift the rope one into place:

When this was done Austin Stack was the first man to come over the wall in safety. Béaslaí was next and he got stuck against the wall half way up because his other escaping comrades were trying to use the rope at the same time as he was endeavouring to make the ascent. It was realised that only one man could climb the rope at a time.[18]

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Piaras Béaslaí

Six men altogether got over, including Stack and Béaslaí, though the latter did not find it as easy as the last occasion, cutting his hand to the bone on the rope as he slid down. A waiting taxi took him and the other five to a safe-house, where they stayed for a week before he and Stack were taken by train to Liverpool, and from there to Dublin.

A friendly crewman allowed the pair to bunk inside his ship’s forecastles. “The other sailors showed no curiosity; they were used to such smugglings,” Béaslaí noted. After they disembarked at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in the morning, they were informed by the driver sent to meet them, Joe O’Reilly – one of Collins’ ‘Squad’ – about how a police detective had been shot and wounded the previous night in St Stephen’s Green.[19]

There was, after all, a war still one, one that was creeping further and further into the open.

Narrow Disaster

‘Bloodless triumphs’, Béaslaí had called these kind of daring exploits, but that was not a state that could last for long. One Sunday morning, in September 1920, the Engineering Department arranged for a demonstration of their work on the Kilmashogue Mountain. The night before and again on the morning, Plunkett received word that the British were aware of their planned activities. Though he passed the warning on to O’Connor, the session went ahead anyway.

Kilmashogue Mountain
Kilmashogue Mountain

On the mountainside, the men exploded several small charges. As well as O’Connor and Plunkett, Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, was present, along with Archer and several others. More participants had been expected, including two companies’ worth of men from the 5th Battalion. When some time had passed and those absent were still nowhere to be seen, the rest decided to proceed anyway, detonating about eight or nine bombs.

“Between two of these explosions we heard quite a fusillade of shots and later on several more which we found difficult to account for,” Plunkett remembered.

Despite the prior warnings, the men failed to put two and two together, and did nothing more than send out one of their number downhill to investigate before continuing. The engineers got a little too involved in their work, and disaster was narrowly averted when, according to Plunkett:

…one of the charges which had a large stone on top of it, was fired, the stone went straight up in the air and came down almost on the spot where one man, who had stood too close, had thrown himself down with the fright.

So near to him was the stone when it fell that I was able to touch it and the man’s leg with one hand. The stone which weighed about 30 lbs. was almost completely buried in the earth. No one was hurt.

When the first runner did not come back, a second was dispatched after him – and quickly returned with urgent news.

Blood on the Mountain

The missing two companies had drawn up next to St Columba’s College, the agreed rendezvous point on the mountain, and the forty or so men were about to set off uphill to join the others when they were ambushed by a large number of Auxiliaries, the militarised branch of the RIC which the British Government had formed in response to an increasingly defiant Ireland.

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Auxiliaries on the prowl

They had been hiding on the grounds of St Columba’s College the night before, taking care to detain passers-by who might warn their targets. The unsuspecting IRA men were caught entirely off-guard when armed foes emerged from behind the walls of the college, demanding for them to put their hands up.

“I should mention that this was the very first operation carried out in Ireland by the Auxiliaries,” wrote Plunkett.

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Seán Doyle

The remaining IRA men uphill promptly fled, with O’Connor and Mulcahy going in one direction, and Plunkett and Archer taking another. The Auxiliaries had already departed, taking with them the Irishmen they had caught as prisoners – save one. Plunkett and Archer came across a body on the mountainside. Seán Doyle had reached for the grenade in his pocket, only to be shot down by the Auxiliaries.

“The man’s shirt was completely soaked in blood,” Plunkett described. He did not recognise the corpse and so turned to his companion. “I asked Liam Archer to have a look at him and was quite disgusted that he wouldn’t.”[20]

Archer made no mention of that particular detail in his own account. To him, the day “was a lesson never to discount local knowledge,” as the warnings that morning about an enemy presence had been inexplicably ignored. It was a rude reminder to O’Connor and his colleagues that their war had a steep and unforgiving learning curve.[21]

fb_img_1490720457042A month later, in October 1920, O’Connor, McKee, Mulcahy, Collins and Oscar Traynor met in Gardiner’s Place, Dublin, to discuss the plight of the latest prisoner in need of rescue. Time was of the essence, as Kevin Barry was due to hang for his part in an ambush on British troops, and O’Connor resurfaced his idea of blowing a hole through the wall of Mountjoy in order to allow IRA men to rush in.

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Kevin Barry

Whether this would have led to the disaster Michael Lynch feared remains unknown. The plan proceeded far enough for men from the Dublin Brigade to get into position outside Mountjoy, in anticipation for the explosion, only for it to be cancelled for fear that the wardens would kill Barry rather than let him go.[22]

As if to signal the end of an era, Barry’s sentence went ahead and he was hanged on the 1st November 1920, the first such political execution since the Easter Rising. The days of thumbing the nose at hapless wardens seemed over, as the war for Irish independence entered a darker, less forgiving stage.

Eye for an Eye

Faced with this increased pressure, the IRA redoubled its efforts, outside Ireland as well as in. “Wholesale burnings were then taking place in Ireland,” as described by Michael O’Leary, “so that I am sure reprisals in England of a similar nature at this time would be considered very appropriate, as we believed ‘an eye for an eye’.”

As part of the Liverpool IRA Company, O’Leary was ideally placed for this sort of asymmetrical warfare. Paraffin oil, waste cotton-rags and other materials for lighting fires were gathered, the targets being the cotton warehouses and timber yards in the city. The men involved were summoned to Joseph’s Hall on Scotland Road, where they met O’Connor, whose duties once again involved sabotage, only this time on enemy soil and not just in Liverpool, but Manchester and London as well, so O’Connor informed them.

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Scotland Road, Liverpool

Clearly, the IRA GHQ was taking these overseas operations to heart, and O’Conor, having operated in England before, was the obvious choice to direct this latest theatre of the war. Gratified at the willingness of the men before him, O’Connor said he was off to Manchester but would return to see them in time for their mission to commence.

This he did so on the 26th November 1920, the day before the due date, and asked if there were any questions. O’Leary had one:

I asked him what would be our position after the fires, or how we were to act. He replied, “Keep quiet for a fortnight and repeat similar operations.”

O’Leary did not think this feasible. After all, most of them were already known to the authorities for their subversive activities and would surely be arrested before the two weeks passed. Instead, O’Leary wanted the Company to start anew immediately after the first attack, on the following morning, and begin a fresh wave of fires, this time against the shops in the city centre, and then moving on to the outskirts until finally brought low.

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IRA men

O’Connor turned down this suggestion, either because he did not wish to condone suicide and the waste of manpower or that he believed the men would still be at liberty after the fortnight for the second set of burnings as originally envisioned. O’Leary was not convinced but went ahead with the rest of the Company that night, on the 27th November.

He was gratified at how not a single man was absent when they assembled, before setting forth in teams of three to six towards their assigned targets. O’Leary was to be even more thrilled at their success and speed:

In less than 5 minutes a line of fire, 8 miles in length, from Seaforth to Gaston was started, resulting in the complete destruction of 14 cotton warehouses and 4 large timber yards.

The only failure was that of O’Leary and his group, being interrupted as they prepared the oil-soaked rags with which to burn down their allocated warehouse. O’Leary fired his revolver as two policemen wrestled with the man on watch, wounding one in the shoulder. Having gained the upper hand, he forced the pair against a wall and took aim, only for his gun to jam. The IRA men now fled into the night-time mist, with the shrill blasts of whistles behind them.[23]

Leaving a Legacy

O’Connor learnt about the success of the Liverpool mission while in Newcastle; at least, according to Liam McMahon, who had accompanied him from Dublin to help set up a Newcastle IRA company. The pair were watching a cinema newsreel when Liverpool came up, much to O’Connor’s approval. “Well, that is something,” he said to McMahon. “I hope Manchester will do as well.”[24]

O’Leary told a different version as, in his account, he reported straight to O’Connor, waiting in Joseph’s Hall, after escaping from the warehouse he had failed to destroy. O’Leary then took the morning train to Manchester. O’Connor could plan ahead all he wanted, but O’Leary knew Liverpool would be too dangerous for him now. As he had predicted, a wave of arrests followed, including his own, despite his efforts to put distance between himself and the scene of the crime.[25]

O’Leary could take comfort in how his troubles had not been in vain. “It is impossible to estimate the damage at the various fires, but a rough computation puts it at over a quarter of a million,” reported the news about Liverpool.

In addition, Daniel Ward, a 19-year-old labourer, had been killed that night after alerting some policemen to the four suspicious-looking men loitering in the doorway of a warehouse. In the resulting struggle, one of the men fired a revolver, hitting Ward with fatal results. This account matches O’Leary’s own in a number of details, but whether that is coincidental or if O’Leary omitted the blood on his hands when relaying his story years later is another of the period’s many unanswered questions.

Similar mass burnings had been intended to take place simultaneously in London and Manchester, but these proved to be damp squibs. On the same night as the Liverpool fires, police intercepted a band of men off White Cross Street, Aldersgate, London, outside a timber store. The cotton waste, scrap paper and paraffin they had on them would suggest identical intentions as in Liverpool, as would the gun they brandished at the policemen. Otherwise, London remained untroubled by the end of the 27th November.[26]

Manchester, likewise, had been underwhelming in performance, as few of the IRA there had been quite as keen as their Liverpudlian counterparts to undertake such a mission. “Rory O’Connor afterwards told me that he was very disappointed,” O’Leary recalled.[27]

Patrick O’Donoghue, as captain of the Manchester Company, would admit this inactivity on his men’s part, explaining that:

It was felt that our units were not sufficiently organised to carry out the destruction of warehouses on a large scale.[28]

seanrussellDespite this mixed success, O’Connor’s campaign of arson in Britain would live on in Republican memory. Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1938, two IRA veterans from the War of Independence, Seán Russell and Maurice Twomey, were sitting on the grounds of the Spa Hotel, New York, when the former reminisced about the damage O’Connor had helped inflict on the enemy homeland. Twomey was sceptical as to how useful this history lesson could be to them now but, to Russell, the late O’Connor had written the guidebook for his own bombing operation, to be undertaken in the following year.[29]

To be continued in: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)

References

[1] Jackson, Valentine (BMH / WS 409), pp. 30-1

[2] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 95-6

[3] Ibid, p. 170

[4] Jackson, pp. 31-2

[5] Plunkett, Jack (BMH / WS 865), pp. 15-6

[6] Archer, Liam (BMH / WS 819), pp. 13-5

[7] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), pp. 160-2

[8] Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 50-3

[9] Knightly, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 13

[10] Evening Herald, 17/03/1919

[11] Ibid, 18/03/1919

[12] Ibid, 29/03/1919

[13] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), pp. 188, 190

[14] Evening Herald, 29/03/1919

[15] Béaslaí, p. 199

[16] Ibid, p. 233

[17] Plunkett, pp. 43-5

[18] O’Donoghue, Patrick (BMH / WS 847), pp. 9-10

[19] Béaslaí, pp. 239-40

[20] Plunkett, pp. 32-4

[21] Archer, p. 18

[22] Traynor, Oscar (BMH / WS 340), pp. 49-51

[23] O’Leary, Michael (BMH / WS 797), pp. 43-6

[24] McMahon, Liam (BMH / WS274), 22

[25] O’Leary, pp. 46-7

[26] Irish Times, 29/11/1920

[27] O’Leary, p. 47

[28] O’Donoghue, p. 13

[29] MacEoin, Uiseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 397

Bibliography

Books

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Newspapers

Evening Herald

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Archer, Liam, WS 819

Jackson, Valentine, WS 409

Kelly, Patrick, J., WS 781

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McMahon, Liam, WS 274

O’Donoghue, Patrick, WS 847

O’Leary, Michael, WS 797

Plunkett, Jack, WS 865

Traynor, Oscar, WS 340

Rebel Operative: Liam Mellows Against Britain, Against the Treaty, 1920-2 (Part V)

A continuation of: Rebel Exile: Intrigue and Factions with Liam Mellows in the United States of America, 1916-8 (Part IV)

‘Mr Nolan’

Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.

Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.

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The Mellows address at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.

When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.

The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.

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The nun’s veil Mellows wore while disguised as a nun, now in the National Museum of Ireland

This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.

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The burning of the Custom House, Dublin, on the 25th May 1921

Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.

“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.

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Frank Robbins

Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?

As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.[1]

A Soldier’s Heart

If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.

0619All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:

But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.[2]

The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.

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Barney Mellows

Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.

Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.[3]

Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.

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131 Morehampton Road, Dublin

Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.[4]

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Cathal Brugha

In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”[5]

Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:

[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.

As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.[6]

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Michael Collins

The Scottish Connection

Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.

When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:

He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.[7]

No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.[8]

By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.

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C96 Mauser, dubbed ‘Peter the Painter’, a gun commonly used by the IRA

Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.

Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.

Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.

With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.

The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.

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Glasgow Cross, 1910

Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.

An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.[9]

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Members of the South Tipperary Flying Column

Breathing Space

Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:

Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.

He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.[10]

Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.[11]

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Vaughan’s Hotel, Parnell Square, Dublin

But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.[12]

It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.[13]

Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.

She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.[14]

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Charlie McGuinness

Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.

Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.[15]

The Landing in Waterford

As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.

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Vincent White, in the robes of the Mayor of Waterford

This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.

The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.

Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.

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Little Island in the River Suir, Co. Waterford

White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness was to lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.

McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.

White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.[16]

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IRA members

McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.[17]

Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.

Like Stars of Constancy

Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:

The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.

As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.

Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.[18]

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National Concert Hall, Dublin

Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.

Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.

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Inside the National Concert Hall, where the debates were held

Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:

Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.[19]

Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.[20]

Letting the Situation Develop

Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.

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Ernie O’Malley

Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance:  a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.

Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.

As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”

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Séumas Robinson

He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.

Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.[21]

The Fear of the People

Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:

I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.

To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”

Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”

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Liam Mellows speaking at Bodenstown, June 1922

The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:

The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –

“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.

“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”

Peace with Honour

It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”[22]

For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.[23]

Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:

Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.[24]

As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:

…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.[25]

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Nora Connolly

And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.[26]

It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.

Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.[27]

a121
Seán Milroy

A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.

Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his listeners could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”[28]

Civil War

Briscoe
Robert Briscoe

Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.[29]

The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.

When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.

“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”[30]

This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.[31]

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General Post of Office, Dublin

What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.

Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.

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Rory O’Connor

The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.

O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:

…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.[32]

Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.

Reaffirming Allegiances

The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.

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King John’s Castle, Limerick

But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.

“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”

It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.[33]

richard-mulcahy
Richard Mulcahy

Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.

Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.

As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.[34]

florence
Florence O’Donoghue

“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”

The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.

In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.[35]

1280px-anti-treaty_ira_convention_at_the_mansion_house2c_dublin2c_on_april_9th_1922
Group photograph of anti-Treaty officers at an IRA Convention in Dublin, 1922

The Straight Road to the Republic

The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:

Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.

Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.[36]

It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.

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Parnell Square, Dublin

O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.[37]

This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.[38]

For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.

He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price.  Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.

When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.[39]

frankflood2In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.

Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?

Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.

“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”

But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.

“Then there must be a civil war.”

“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”

They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.[40]

5719201849_21b0e654bf_zA Lot of Sick People

Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”

As Lawless recalled:

I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.

Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:

I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.

Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.[41]

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William O’Brien

Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?

Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:

A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”

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Liam Lynch

The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.

Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.[42]

A Last Meeting

Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.

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The Four Courts, Dublin

After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.

“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”

“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”

“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”

If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”

Robbins2
Frank Robbins

To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.

When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.

That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.[43]

To be continued in: Rebel Herald: Liam Mellows and the Opposition to the Treaty, 1922 (Part VI)

References

[1] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 227-8

[2] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), p. 23

[3] Ibid, pp. 12, 14-16

[4] Ibid, pp. 21-2

[5] Ibid, pp. 16, 22-3

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] Reader, Seamus (BMH / WS 933), pp. 7-8

[8] Ibid, p. 4

[9] Ibid, pp. 10-3

[10] Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 515), p. 9

[11] Noyk, Michael (BMH / WS 707), p. 113

[12] Moylan, Seán (BMH / WS 838), p. 279

[13] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 27

[14] Daly, Una (BMH / WS 610), pp. 3-4

[15] Ibid, p. 5

[16] White, Vincent (BMH / WS 1764), pp. 32-5

[17] McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934), pp. 179, 183

[18] Robbins, p. 229

[19] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130

[20] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45

[21] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[22] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp.227-31

[23] Briscoe, p. 135

[24] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland’, p. 233

[25] Ibid, p. 234

[26] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 210

[27] De Burca and Boyle, p. 45

[28] Ibid, p. 55

[29] Briscoe, p. 137

[30] Ibid, p. 141

[31] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 271

[32] Irish Times, 23/03/1922

[33] O’Malley, pp. 74-82

[34] Ibid, pp. 83-5

[35] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986), p. 220

[36] Irish Times, 30/03/1922

[37] O’Malley, p. 85

[38] Robbins, p. 229

[39] Ibid, pp. 225-6

[40] Ibid, pp. 229-30

[41] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 437-8

[42] Robbins, pp. 230-1

[43] Ibid, pp. 231-2

Bibliography

Books

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Una, WS 610

Dore, Eamon T., WS 515

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043

Moylan, Seán, WS 838

Noyk, Michael, WS 707

Reader, Seamus, WS 933

White, Vincent, WS 1764

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

Newspaper

Irish Times

Online Source

‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html

Book Review: After the Rising: Soldiers, Lawyers and Trials of the Irish Revolution, by Seán Enright (2016)

 

bookcoverThomas Traynor was charged with murder on the 6th April 1921 in Dublin City Hall by a military court. A small, wiry man of about forty with a long, black moustache that gave him a mournful appearance, Traynor had been apprehended at 144 Brunswick Street, the scene of an ambush on a British Army patrol that resulted in the death of two cadets. The fleeing Traynor had been rugby-tackled to the ground by a lieutenant who reported that Traynor had shouted: “God’s sake, shoot me now.” Later he had told another of his captors: “I am only a soldier like yourself.”

Under the rules of the court, Traynor was not entitled to give any evidence or be cross-examined. Not that he had much to say, only that he had been caught up in the fighting while carrying a gun – the same automatic found on him at the scene – to give to someone else. He made no attempt to explain the incriminating remarks attributed to him. All this, and his prior involvement in the Easter Rising of five years ago, ensured his conviction for murder and hanging.

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British Army and police patrol

If there was little doubt that Traynor had indeed been involved in the ambush on Brunswick Street, then the case of Patrick Maher could only be described as tragic. He was among those arrested and brought to trial for the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station that saw two policemen killed in the resulting shootout.

Due to an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Breen, one of the participants in the rescue, Maher was picked out of a police line-up. His name had earlier been passed to the authorities by ‘private information’ – in other words, an informant, unusual in itself when such sources of information were fast drying up.

Maher had worked at Cleeves Creamery throughout a strike, the only employee who had done so, and it is probable that his name had been supplied to the police out of spite (he had already been boycotted and threatened). Along with another man convicted of the shootout (probably accurately), Maher was the last man executed during the War of Independence, on the 7th June 1921, four days before the Truce which would have saved him.

These are but two of the cases that illuminate Seán Enright’s study of the revolutionary period in Ireland, with a focus on the War of Independence. Enright flips the usual Hibernian-centric narrative on its head by focusing on the British perspective, making it one of the few works to do so.

Earlier studies such as William Sheehan’s Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 and W.H. Kautt’s Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion, 1919-1921 had also followed such a line, though these focused on the military side of things, the obvious area of study for this turbulent period with its ambushes and assassinations.

british-army-vehicle-checkpoint-in-dublin-city-the-irish-war-of-independence-ireland-1920
British Army checkpoint, Dublin

Enright eschews this approach by focusing on the use of the legal system by Dublin Castle to try and contain the growing rebellion on its watch. This leads to a quieter, more analytical read than most works, though – as the author demonstrates throughout – not one that is any less dramatic. Enright understands that stories are the building blocks of history, and here we get plenty of them.

This may not appear obvious at first, given a subject material that seems on the surface to be a dry one. Whatever its interest, Enright leaves us in no doubt as to its importance in understanding the conflict. “A unique feature of this revolution,” he writes, “was the extent to which the conflict centred on law and legal institutions which kept the status quo in place.”

The Crown Courts were intended to be instruments of keeping rebellion in check, yet their juries could not be guaranteed to deliver the verdicts that the British Government needed. Partly this was due to Irish Republican Army (IRA) intimidation, and the few witnesses who did come forward risked boycotts and social alienation.

A more direct approach by the IRA was the burning of court houses, with a total of forty-seven destroyed by the spring of 1920. The presiding judge of one ruined court at Borrisokane in County Tipperary, however, proved to be not so easily vanquished, as Enright describes with a fine eye for tragicomedy:

Major Dease, a hefty, old R.M. convened court in the blackened ruins. Major Dease continued to sit session, his white hair plastered to his face by falling rain. The court staff exchanged glances occasionally but no one was brave enough to say anything to the old Major.

In other cases, no coercion was needed, as local authorities switched allegiances to the Dáil Éireann and quickly made their newfound loyalties known. The Roscommon County Council served notice to landlords of court buildings that no rent would be paid for them as their services were no longer required. In Newbridge, County Kildare, the end of the old system came even more abruptly when the resident magistrate arrived one morning to find the front door to his courthouse locked.

smashed-by-auxilliaries-after-kilmichael-ambushjpeg
Burnt-out building from the War of Independence

Even the few Crown courts that continued to function did so only barely. The last politically-motivated murder trial heard by a jury was in the spring of 1920. What looked like an iron-clad case against the accused for the shooting of a policeman in Tipperary was thrown on its head when it was revealed mid-trial that the main witness for the prosecution had made an original statement that differed considerably from what he had just given.

It was in the wake of such administrative impotence that Winston Churchill urged the rest of the Cabinet to adopt harsher measures. When it emerged during the Cabinet discussion that the Irish Judiciary, still loyal to the principles of open justice, had refused to take on non-jury trials, Churchill quipped: “Get three generals if you cannot get three judges.”

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers in Dublin

That set the tone for the British response in the latter half of the War, namely the establishment of the military courts and the assigning of the British Army to do what the civilian administration could not.

The first person to be tried for murder under the new system was an 18-year old student, Kevin Barry, for an ambush in Dublin that resulted in three dead soldiers. Despite appeals for clemency, Barry was hanged.

This marked a turning point. Before, IRA defendants could have safely declined to recognise the legitimacy of the toothless courts before them. The possibility of lengthy sentences or even execution made subsequent trials a literal matter of life and death.

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Sir Nevil Macready, circa 1915

Even the Truce of 1921 and the cessation of hostilities did not stop the legal battles, particularly with forty-two men still on death row and over a hundred awaiting trial. Sir Nevil Macready, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Ireland, intended to proceed with the executions of the former and the start processing the latter, but the case of J.J. Egan, convicted by a military court for the possession of ammunition, threatened to throw a spanner in the whole works.

As briskly summarised by Enright:

The primary argument advanced for the prisoner, Egan, can be distilled in a few lines: the Crown had released the prerogative power to wage war in Ireland to Parliament by passing the ROIA [Restoration of Order in Ireland Act] to deal with the Rebellion and therefore only Parliament could embark on new measures. It followed that the whole edifice of martial law was unlawful.

Matters went badly for Macready when the Master of the Rolls ruled that the military courts were indeed unlawful, with a writ for habeas corpus issued for Egan and the prisoner to be produced in court. Macready held his ground and informed his subordinates to ignore the writ, prompting the issuing of a further writ by the Master of the Rolls for the arrests of Macready and two other generals.

Both sides backed down with their writs the following day, with Egan released and Macready out of danger – but with the military courts, the headstone of British strategy, severely compromised in the event of further warfare in Ireland.

As the above story shows, Enright is adept at bringing out some of the more obscure details of the period into the light, leading to a fuller understanding. But research is not the writer’s only talent, displaying at times the ability to capture taunt, at times gripping depictions of otherwise quiet scenes inside a courtroom.

This book appeals to a number of interests: the challenges a liberal democracy faces in confronting a war, one of the least liberal occurrences, in its midst. The weapons that a military regime, as the British state in Ireland essentially was by its end, can use – and have used against it. Brief but evocative pen portraits of the various senior figures in authority. A study of how things fall apart with the centre slowly but surely failing to hold, no matter how much legal chicanery or brute force is applied. It is for this ability to show many things at once that After the Rising deserves to be on the shelf of any serious student of the period.

 

Publisher’s Website: Merrion Press

Originally posted on The Irish Story (16/12/2016)

 

Twenty Years a Republican: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1919-1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: A Prominent Republican Leader: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1913-1919 (Part I)

The Men Behind the Men

Imprisonment barely slowed McGarry down. After his release in December 1916 as part of the general amnesty, he was hard at work again with the resurgent republican cause, the immediate goal being to ensure the IRB and the Irish Volunteers remained joined at the hip, and the former in charge.

Which was simple enough: in October 1917, candidates doubling as IRB initiates gained all the seats on the Volunteer Executive at the latter’s Convention, with McGarry as General Secretary and an up-and-coming Michael Collins as Director of Organisation (Collins was first nominated as Secretary but withdrew in favour of the other man).[1]

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Seán McGarry (right) and Michael Collins (centre)

While the movement was in robust health and McGarry’s role in it a prominent one, he did not always get his own way. In mid-1917, the topic of conversation at Fleming’s Hotel, Gardiner Place, was the impending bye-election in Clare, where Éamon de Valera was planning to contest as a Sinn Féin candidate. Although not strictly an IRB meeting, most of those present in Fleming’s were members.

McGarry protested against the possibility of Eoin MacNeill’s involvement in the election, considering him persona non grata for his attempts to countermand the Rising (he was equally pitiless with another miscreant who had tried to interfere, writing to the disgraced Bulmer Hobson in March 1918 on behalf of the Volunteer Executive for him to return any monies or properties belonging to the Volunteers and submit himself for court-martial).[2]

McGarry was overruled by de Valera, however, who threatened to boycott his own campaign if MacNeill was not permitted.[3]

The two men could not have had more divergent opinions. De Valera had joined the IRB shortly before the Easter Rising upon learning to his shock that his Brotherhood-connected subordinates knew more about the plans for the rebellion than he did. He left soon afterwards and would nurse a distaste for the fraternity.[4]

“Curse secret societies,” de Valera wrote later, adding that he had been tempted several times to take “drastic action” against the IRB but held off for fear of the turmoil that might cause.[5]

A Question of Authority

Sometime before the polling day in Clare, another gathering was held in Limerick by IRB luminaries such as Austin Stack, Seán Ó Muirthile, Thomas Ashe, Ernest Blythe as well as McGarry. Stack asked the others why they were not at their posts in Clare in accordance with their candidate’s orders.

“Who gave de Valera authority to order us about?” McGarry groused. The remark triggered an impromptu discussion on whether or not it was appropriate for the Brotherhood to be involved in political matters. It was the last sort of question that a secret society like the IRB would want aired.

In the end, the others obligingly departed for Clare to assist de Valera except McGarry who made his way back to Dublin in a huff. If McGarry had thought that the new politicians were going to be at the IRB’s beck and call, then he was sorely behind the times.[6]

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Éamon de Valera

Given the tension between McGarry and de Valera, it was only fitting that the two men should be thrown together when they were arrested and deported to England in May 1918 along with others as part of the supposed ‘German Plot’. Michael Collins had been on his way to warn McGarry of the impending arrests but arrived too late (a practical man, Collins then stayed the night at McGarry’s house, reasoning that the authorities would be unlikely to return to a place they had already raided).[7]

McGarry had by then risen to become President of the IRB Supreme Council. The historian Leon Ó Broin could not resist noting how two presidents of the Irish Republic had been imprisoned together in Lincoln Prison, de Valera of Dáil Éireann and McGarry due to the IRB constitution proclaiming its head to be de facto that of the Republic (although this is perhaps not an idea that stands up to serious scrutiny).[8]

A Man’s Work, Done by Men

Confinement did not hold either man for long. In the weeks following the well-publicised escape, in February 1919, of McGarry, de Valera and a third man, Seán Milroy, from Lincoln Prison, Harry Boland felt the need to rebut some of the stories that had been circulating.

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Harry Boland

Speaking to the Evening Herald in his role as Honorary Secretary of the Sinn Féin Executive, Boland dismissed the existence of the ‘Ultra-Irish Society’, a thinly-veiled depiction of Sinn Féin, which was supposedly behind the jailbreak. What particularly jarred him was the rumour that girls had been brought over from Ireland to flirt with the English gaolers as a honeypot distraction.

“We have too much respect for our Irish girls to subject them to such humiliation,” Boland harrumphed. “President de Valera’s rescue was a man’s work and was done by men.”[9]

The real story behind the escape was surreal enough without the need for femme fatale colleens. Michael Lynch, a Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin and a friend of McGarry’s, was visited by Tomasina McGarry, some eight or nine months after her husband was deported.

She had received from him a most puzzling postcard with two pencil sketches of a man whose thin, bespectacled face bore more than a passing resemblance to her husband’s. In one of the cartoons, the gentleman was trying vainly to open a door with a comically oversized key. Beneath, it read: 1917 – can’t get in.The second sketch showed the now despondent fellow sitting in cell before an also-comically oversized keyhole, with the words: 1918 – can’t get out.

“Did you show this to Michel Collins?” asked Lynch, according to his recollections.

“No. Why should I?” she replied.

“I think you had better.”

Collins lost his temper when shown the  card, demanding to know why the hell Tomasina had kept it to herself for so long. It turned out that the cartoons were a coded message from the prisoners in Lincoln Prison, covertly asking for a key to be sent over.[10]

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The coded postcard depicting Seán McGarry, from Dunne, Declan. Peters Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Escape

Tomasina McGarry could be forgiven for not knowing a code she had not been privy to, especially how mystified everyone else was.

The card had been initially sent to a sympathetic priest in Leeds, minus any actual instructions on what to do with it. The padre took the items to Liam McMahon, a senior member of the IRB in Manchester, but the latter was equally stumped. McMahon at least had the inkling that the card was supposed to convey something, so it was forwarded to Dublin, where it ended up in the possession of Tomasina, although that was not the end of the confusion, as McMahon put it:

I believe they had the same difficulty in Dublin in trying to find anything in them.  Eventually, I think Collins tumbled to the fact that there was something in them.[11]

That something was a request from the prisoners for a key. Several were made, based on the drawing in the postcard, and smuggled into Lincoln Prison via cakes (one baked by McMahon’s wife). None of these keys, however, fitted the locks.

Finally, one of the prisoners, Peter de Loughry, was able to duplicate one by unscrewing the lock off the door of the common-room where the inmates were allowed to be unsupervised every afternoon. A skilled craftsman, de Loughry was able to work steadily on his project every day before the lock would be reinserted into the door in time for the guards’ return.

McGarry would wonder at how they ever got away with it, considering how every time the lock was removed from the door its hole was gradually widened until it was ready to fall out. But got away with it they did.

Meanwhile, the rescue team, including Collins and Boland, had come over to England where they were using McMahon’s house in Manchester to plan the operation. McMahon was assigned to secure a taxi and wait with it in Sheffield on the appointed day of the 3rd February. Collins and Boland journeyed to Lincoln Prison with a spare copy of the key de Loughry had made in case anything went amiss – which, in obedience to Murphy’s Law, it did.

The two rescuers approached the door in the prison wall, near the courtyard on the other side where de Valera, McGarry and Milroy were due to come. Collins and Boland waited by the door for a tense while until they heard the muffled sounds of footsteps from the inside. After ascertaining that they had the right men, Collins put his key in the lock and gave it a sharp turn.

The key, much to everyone’s horror, promptly snapped.

Before anyone could panic, de Valera saved the situation by producing his own spare copy which he inserted into the lock, pushing out the broken one. The door swung open and the three absconders padded out in their canvas slippers which they had worn to deaden the noise. Looking back, McGarry was to rue not locking the door behind them for added effect, as that would have made their escape all the more mystifying.[12]

In Sheffield, McMahon was waiting impatiently in his taxi, with frequent glances at his watch, when de Valera, McGarry and Milroy made their appearance. As McMahon drove the three runaways to Manchester, McGarry talked about all the possible ways they could get to Dublin.

In a sign that their time spent locked up together may not have been an easy one, de Valera turned to McGarry and said, in McMahon’s recollections: “Don’t you think the men outside have done very well so far? Why not leave it to them to do the rest?”

That was the end of the chatter, much to McMahon’s relief. His part completed, McMahon last saw McGarry on his way to the train station for Liverpool disguised as a bookie.[13]

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Harry Boland (left), Michael Collins (centre) and Éamon de Valera (right)

The Return Home

McGarry’s return to Dublin was a discreet one without fanfare or fuss. He was able to hide at Lynch’s house on Richmond Road after Collins had dropped by the day before to let the family know the fugitive was coming. Collins did not seem to ask for permission, but Lynch, as a member of the Irish Volunteers, could hardly refuse sanctuary to a fellow freedom-fighter.

What could have been a strained situation in the house, particularly with McGarry unable to step outside for fear of recognition, was elevated by his general good humour. He was fond of jokes and stories, according to Lynch, and was fortunate enough to befriend Lynch’s new wife, who was not above adding to the humour by pranking her guest.

Noting a habit of McGarry’s to overuse the firepoker – at least ten times within half an hour in one sitting – Mrs Lynch sneakily applied a liberal amount of polish to the handle. She then waited as the unsuspecting target prodded at the fireplace as per habit while absentmindedly rubbing his face. Confused as to the gales of laughter from the rest of the household, it was not until he stood up and looked in the mirror that he saw the blackness smeared all over his features.

The victim was not amused, as told by Lynch, somewhat belying what he said about McGarry’s constant geniality: “He chased my wife round and round the table. She saved herself by running down the garden, and all Seán could do was stand at the kitchen door and curse.”

It was not all ‘fun’ and games. Tomasina was unable to see her husband lest she bring unwanted attention. The nearest thing to contact McGarry could have with his three children – Emmet, Sadie and Desmond – was for them to be taken by the family maid for a walk every afternoon, if the weather permitted, to Richmond Road, from where McGarry could peer out for a glimpse of them. However unsatisfying, it was the most he could have.

After first consulting with Collins, it was agreed that enough time had passed for Tomasina to come over. One day, she brought their son, Emmet, who, at the age of three, had only vague memories of his long-absent father. He had been told beforehand they were visiting the doctor and was none the wiser during the course of the surreptitious reunion, until:

[Emmet] crept up on his daddy’s knee, and he told us all, in his little innocent way, that he was a very nice doctor. Then, suddenly, recognition, came into the little kid’s eyes. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and cried out, “You are my daddy!”. It was the most moving scene I ever remember, not only for Seán, but the whole lot of us felt the tears in our eyes.

A chip off the old block at keeping secrets, little Emmet kept his visitations to his father to himself. His twin sister, Sadie, was also brought to the Lynch house; that way, the McGarrys were able to maintain some semblance of overdue family life.[14]

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Seán McGarry

The War Continues

It was almost a month after the jailbreak when Collins had the idea of publicly unveiling McGarry, the chose venue being a public concert at the Mansion House. Posters advertised the presence of a “prominent Republican leader” who would be speaking at the concert but no names or further details were given until the evening of the concert on the 4th March when McGarry marched on stage in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. After a brief speech, the returned hero was bundled out of the building and driven away before the nearby policemen could interfere.[15]

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Seán McGarry in crowd

By now a public figure, McGarry entered the arena of politics on behalf of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party. He was already a councillor in Dublin Corporation, having been introduced as such by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House concert. The Corporation had met for a special session a month earlier, in February 1919, to replace a recently departed member. As per the rules, the replacement could be selected by the party of the deceased – in this case the beleaguered Irish Parliamentary Party – but the nominee withdrew in favour of Sinn Féin’s McGarry.

It was a sign of the times that, in the words of historian Pádraig Yeates:

The fact that he was on the run…and that this might hamper him in the discharging his duties as a public representative, does not appear to have been considered an impediment.[16]

Come the start of 1920, McGarry ran as a candidate for alderman in Dublin Corporation, and later as a TD for Dublin Mid in the 1922 general elections, winning both times on a Sinn Féin ticket.[17] It is unclear if he entered politics on his own volition or due to instructions but given his essentially passive nature, the latter seems most likely.

His newfound public role carried its own set of dangers as McGarry, still a man on the run, was obliged to attend council meetings. In December 1922, armed Auxiliaries intruded upon one such session of Dublin Corporation. All those present were questioned, resulting in six of them being taken away in custody.

The officer in charge had called out the list of names present in the roll book. When he came to McGarry, a voice responded: “Not here.” At the same time, Margaret McGarry, another Sinn Féin member of the Council and no relation, remarked: “My name is McGarry, perhaps it is me?”

Whether meant in jest or confusion, she was quickly told to shush by the Lord Mayor. When the Auxiliaries left, it was without McGarry among their catch of prisoners, either because he had left the room in time or had been able to remain undetected inside.[18]

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British soldiers and civilians in Ireland

Out of Sight

For the most part, however, McGarry drops out of the historian’s view during the months of the War of Independence. His reticence in revealing too much, either to the Bureau of Military History (preferring to dwell more on his mentor, Tom Clarke, than on himself) or the Military Pensions Board (where he was already assured of a pension, having been in the National Army as a captain during the Civil War), means that it is hard to reconstruct his activities in any great depth.

It is not even clear if he stayed on in Lynch’s house after being ‘outed’ in the Mansion House or if he moved elsewhere. His entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography describes him as being “captain in the IRA Dublin Brigade throughout the war of independence” but no other source supports this.[19]

While imprisoned in Lincoln, he had been replaced as President of the IRB Supreme Council by Harry Boland, and later Collins.[20] A follower rather than a leader, McGarry made no effort to regain his presidency, seemingly content to leave it to Collins. McGarry would serve his successor as he had previously done for Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott.

As part of this, McGarry was sent to Britain sometime in April/May 1921 to touch base with the few isolated Volunteers and the remnants of the IRB there. According to one of those he talked to, the fight for freedom was nearly at the end of its tether in Ireland. If the cause was to be abandoned until the next generation were ready to resume, then the Brotherhood would best be reorganised among the young. [21] His efforts did not result in any great success. However, the British-based IRB was too much in disarray, and “Sean gave up in despair.”[22]

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Seán McGarry, mugshot

Speaking to a journalist in 1955, de Valera recalled how McGarry, “whom he did not think much of,” called to see him one day in December 1920 “and spoke to him on authority about should be done,” presumably about the ongoing war with Britain. McGarry had apparently been so circumspect that de Valera did not even realise that his guest had come on behalf of the IRB. De Valera assumed that the other man had come in a private capacity and was “merely…talking big to impress.”

It was only after his visitor was gone that de Valera remembered that he was in the IRB, although the former’s information was out of date as he assumed that McGarry was still its president. Historian Tim Pat Coogan commented that McGarry “was more likely the Brotherhood’s Secretary and certainly a member of the Supreme Council.”[23]

Actually, it is not certain at all if McGarry was still on the Supreme Council or, if not, when he had stopped being so. He was absent at a critical meeting of the IRB Supreme Council – called to discuss the Treaty crisis – on the 19th April 1922, despite the presence there of Michael Collins, Seán Ó Muirthile and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who had each played a role in ‘unveiling’ him at the Mansion House three years ago.[24]

Michael Collins

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Michael Collins in military uniform

McGarry remained close to Collins, holding a place in the other man’s affections as a living totem of the recent past. During the course of his interviews with the American journalist Hayden Talbot, between December 1921 and the following August, Collins complimented McGarry as “the one man who was closer in the confidence of the leaders of the rising than any other man today” – high praise, indeed, considering the hallowed status of said leaders.

Collins was keen for Talbot to meet McGarry for him to give the inside scoop on the Easter Rising and the Howth Gunrunning, both of which he had been intimately involved. The first scheduled meeting fell through due to the Civil War making the streets of Dublin too dangerous for McGarry to travel through. He was able to make it at the next one on the 2nd August 1922, and dutifully relayed to Talbot what he knew while Collins looked on.

McGarry was the very image of the deferential subordinate, at one point glancing at his Commander-in-Chief for advice on how to answer Talbot’s latest question. Collins did not always reciprocate the courtesy. Thinking that the interview had gone on for too long and it was his turn to speak, he brusquely interrupted McGarry, who took the cue and dutifully left for the night.[25]

Tomasina McGarry

In contrast to the relative obscurity of McGarry’s wartime activities, his wife’s are much more accessible. Lacking the military rank of her husband with its guarantee of a pension, Tomasina McGarry was obliged to be more forthcoming in her application to the Military Pensions Board.

In her typed statement in 1945, she told of how during Easter Week 1916 she had delivered letters that her sister had carried from the GPO. Service in the War of Independence in Dublin included her acting as a go-between for Collins and his moles within the DMP. One conveniently lived next door to her and was able to pass on warnings of impending police raids nine or ten times.

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Women from Cumann na mBan

Otherwise, her duties were small and infrequent but essential to the smooth maintenance of an underground army, such as finding accommodation for Volunteers when needed, allowing weapons to be stored at her house or, on one occasion, passing on two revolvers purchased by her sister from an enterprising Black-and-Tan.[26]

Tomisina had an impressive list of references. Richard Mulcahy confirmed to the Board that:

She was a close confidante of Michael Collins, and throughout the whole of the post-1916 period of military activity was closely connected with his personal intelligence work. He made a complete use of her services and of her home, for that work, and her services made a considerable contribution to his personal safety.[27]

Others agreed. Gearoíd O’Sullivan described her as “a great one in efficiency and thoroughness,” and how she had stored for Collins papers relating to IRB funding. Leo Henderson told of how she had “rendered great service to the men of the movement; a confidante, conveying messages,” and confirmed a story of him retrieving a gun from its hiding place in her kettle at home (unfortunately, Tomisina was found by the Board to be illegible for a pension).[28]

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Letter from Richard Mulcahy to the Pension Board, verifying Tomasina McGarry’s role in the War of Independence

The Dáil Debates

As a TD, McGarry was entitled to contribute to the debates in the Dáil over whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Speaking on the 3rd January 1922, he began by promising to make a record for brevity. According to some journalists who were present, “he didn’t, but he went so near that we forgave him.”[29]

Considering the not-inconsiderate length of his speech as it appears on the printed page, including interjections by others and his comebacks, all of which apparently took just ten minutes, it can summarised that McGarry spoke very quickly indeed.

With this soon-to-be-broken promise made, he wasted no time in making his choice clear. He supported the ratification of the Treaty with no apology. Shifting from a defensive stance to an offensive one, he proclaimed that he did not wait until he was a member of the present Dáil before becoming a Republican (unlike, presumably, others in the room, though he left any names unstated).

He had worked in the Republican movement for twenty years. He was a Republican that day and he would be a Republican the next, and, as such, he would be voting for the Treaty as it stood:

For that I do not need the opinion of a constitutional lawyer or a constitutional layman or a Webster’s Dictionary or a Bible to tell me what it means. I put on it the interpretation of the ordinary plain man who means what he says. I am not looking for any other interpretation from Webster’s Dictionary or anywhere else. I know what the Treaty means, and the man in the street knows what it means.[30]

This display of impatient insistence could be attributed to the effects of having to listen to – as historian Jason K. Knirck puts it – the previous, seemingly “endless speeches, many of which seemed overly abstract and theoretical.”[31]

McGarry was not the only one to display abstraction fatigue. Speaking on the following day, James Murphy, TD for Louth-Meath, opened with an admission that “not being a constitutional lawyer I do not possess the art of saying nothing in a great many words. Consequently I can relieve the House by assuring it that I will be very brief” (unlike McGarry, Murphy was true to his promise). Shortly afterwards, James Burke, TD for Tipperary Mid, assured his audience, that despite being a lawyer, he was not going to “indulge in a long and laboured dissertation on constitutional law.”[32]

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The second Dail in the Mansion House, August 1921

Fencing in the Dáil

Lambasting the naivety of those who had had inflated expectations of what the London talks could achieve, he asked: “What did we think we were sending to Downing Street for? Did any of us think we were going to get an Irish Republic in Downing Street?”

To this, the ardently anti-Treaty Mary MacSwiney piped up: “Of course you could.”

“A Downing Street Republic?” McGarry said incredulously, prompting laughter from the room.

MacSwiney held her ground. “No, a Downing Street withdrawal from Ireland.”

“Downing Street are withdrawing from Ireland.”

“No, they are not.”

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Mary MacSwiney

Stalemated, McGarry switched on to another tactic: mockery, directed towards the apparent inconsistency in the form of Document No. 2. The brainchild of Éamon de Valera, Document No. 2 was intended as a bridge between the two factions as a slightly rewritten version of the Irish stance during the London talks, with the inclusion of the more acceptable elements of the Treaty to round it off as a compromise.

While it was to be praised by many historians as a “powerful, sophisticated piece of political thought”, the apparent climb-down from a steadfast Republic-and-nothing-but-the-Republic line to a far less glamorous-sounding alternative made the Document an easy target for McGarry to home in on:[33]

Several Deputies protested very strongly and very loudly that they were standing on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. A week before they were standing on the slippery slopes—to borrow a phrase of the Minister of Finance—the slippery slopes of Document No. 2. Document No. 2 was pulled from under their feet and landed them with what must have been an awful jerk on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. They will be standing on that until the proper time—I mean the time when Document No. 2, or perhaps Document No. 3 will be given to us.[34]

“You can have it immediately if you like, whatever your side agrees,” de Valera retorted. It was a fairly nonsensical comeback which made it sound as if he actually had a Document No. 3 at hand, but probably said in the heat of the moment.

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Éamon de Valera

McGarry again did not linger, moving onto a different subject and another chink in the Anti-Treatyites’ armour; in this case, their lack of popular support:

There has been theorising in some of the speeches made here by Deputies about Government by the consent of the governed—self-determination. You can have government in Ireland to-day by consent of the governed with this Treaty. You can have self-extermination without it; but you cannot have war without the consent of the Irish people. And the only reason you carried on war for the last two years was because you had the consent of the people.[35]

McGarry accused the opposition of gambling with their belief that for all the talk of resuming the War, they would not have to actually do so. He admitted that he had indulged in a bit of gambling before but, he added wryly, never on a certainty that did not end up leaving him poorer.

To laughter and cries of “hear, hear”, he followed up his punchline with a stinger: “They are quite right, they are not going back to war; they are going back to destruction.”

McGarry finished with a pair of dark quips, the first a quote from the 19th century English writer Charles Lamb about the Chinese man who burnt down his home to roast a pig. The second was a Biblical allusion: “It was Samson who pulled down the pillars of the Temple. That was his funeral. I do not want to attend the funeral of the Irish nation.”[36]

It was on these eerily prescient citations – for him as well as for the country as a whole – that McGarry finished his contribution. It had been a rather ungainly series of points strung together, rather than a smooth narrative with a fixed beginning, middle and end. McGarry may have revealed his weaknesses as an orator that day, but his arguments had at least been impassioned and direct, making it one of the few times this otherwise reticent man expressed himself in public so forcefully.

The Civil War Breaks

McGarry could be pointed in his rhetoric but he was without rancour himself. On the 11th January, he felt the need to write to the Irish Independent in response to a letter published four days earlier from a Margaret McGarry. Her surname had led others to assume they were related. It was a misunderstanding Seán was keen to correct due to her choice of words: “I should be sorry that any relative of mine should refer to Mr. de Valera in the terms contained in the last paragraph of that letter.”[37]

There may have been little love lost between the two alumni of Lincoln Prison but standards had still to be maintained.

McGarry attended the Dáil session on the 9th September 1922, the first since the Treaty split, and added a dash of the martial by appearing in military uniform.[38] Now a commissioned officer in the nascent National Army, he found himself embroiled, like many of his colleagues, in the internecine conflict that was wracking the country.

At one point assigned to a detachment of soldiers guarding the Amiens Street Railway Station, McGarry was forced to cancel an interview with Hayden Talbot that Collins had set up due to the presence of enemy snipers making travel through the city “inadvisable,” as he put it, with admirable deadpan, to Collins in a phone-call from the station.[39]

On the other side of the War was Frank Henderson. A veteran of the Easter Rising like McGarry, Henderson found himself promoted to O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade when his predecessor was arrested. His heart not in the fight, Henderson tried to hold back, even after the first batch of executions of anti-Treaty prisoners in November and the subsequent orders for him to assassinate pro-Treaty politicians. “I didn’t like the order,” he said simply, years later.

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Free State soldiers during the Civil War

McGarry may have owed his life to such reticence, at least according to Henderson, who described him being out and about in town and frequently drunk in Amiens Street (McGarry apparently doing more than just guard duty there), with Henderson having to veto requests from his trigger-happy subordinates to kill him and other vulnerable targets then and there.

Although Henderson did not say whether he had had a role in the fatal shooting of Seán Hales TD that December, the fact that he would for the next sixteen years ask his son to say a mass for the dead man would indicate a guilty conscience.

After the Civil War, Henderson would find himself snubbed by Richard Mulcahy. This was apparently due to Mulcahy holding him responsible for Hales’ death…and perhaps for another, equally dark incident, one where McGarry was not so lucky.[40]

‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’

Tomasina McGarry was upstairs with her three young children at her Dublin home on the 10th December 1922, when there was a knock at the door shortly after 9 am. Startled but suspecting nothing, her mother and sister, who were visiting, went to answer.

Five or six men confronted them. Ignoring the protests that there were children upstairs, the intruders forced the women out into the street at gunpoint and rushed inside. They sprinkled the hall and sitting-room with petrol and set the place alight before running back out. The hall door was slammed behind them, inadvertently locking it and preventing the two McGarry women from re-entering.

Tomasina was oblivious to what was happening on the floor below, only becoming aware that something was very badly wrong when she saw the fire which spread rapidly throughout the house, filling it with noxious smoke.

Bombarded_Four_Courts_Irish_Civil_War
Destruction of the Four Courts, Dublin, 1922

Between the flames, the door and 7-year-old Sarah’s disabled condition, escape was impossible. All the trapped family could do was to scream out of the window for help. Drawn by the sight of the two frantic women on the pavement, a crowd soon gathered but, as the Irish Times caustically put it: “as is usual on such occasions, suggestions seem to have been more numerous than acts.”

It was only when Sergeant Patrick Smith of the DMP arrived that anything was done. Smith tried and failed to force open the jammed door and had to resort to rushing through the neighbouring house to the backyard. From there, he was able to enter the burning building and, at great personal risk, reached the upstairs room where Tomasina and the three children were huddling together.

Meanwhile, two young men had succeeded where Smith had failed and battered open the front door, dashing up to the sergeant’s assistance. With this collective aid, the family members were removed from their burning home. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the building was too far gone to save and was left a gutted ruin.

civil-war2
Ruins in Dublin, 1922

Samson in the Temple

Sadie was uninjured and ‘merely’ in severe shock. Tomasina and the other two children, however, had received burns. The mother was driven to Richmond Hospital. She had burns to her hair, face and throat which were painful but not life-threatening. Sarah and nine-year old Emmet had also been scorched on various parts of their bodies. Taken to the Children’s Hospital on Temple Street, their conditions were ascertained as stable.

The attack on the McGarrys was just one of a number headlined by the Irish Times as ‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’, all of which happened almost simultaneously around 9 am. The tobacco shop owned by James J. Walsh, Postmaster-General of the Free State, was broken into by armed men who “went about their business in the customary way” in setting it alight. Walsh had the luck to be out at the time, unlike the McGarrys or Michael MacDunphy, the Acting Secretary to the Free State Government.

As with the McGarrys, the MacDunphy family was home when intruders sprinkled petrol on the floor to set alight. Mrs MacDunphy was at least given the time to rescue her baby from upstairs while her husband phlegmatically asked the intruders for a chance to set his affairs in order before they shot him.

However, the assailants had only arson, not assassination, in mind and made no move to stop MacDunphy from escaping with his family. The fire brigade arrived in time to save the building from complete destruction, unlike those of the McGarrys and Walsh.

Meanwhile, a store belonging to Jennie Wyse Power, a Free State Senator, had homemade grenades thrown through its windows. Despite the milling crowds on the street outside, no one was hurt when the bombs shattered the windows and destroyed most of the shop fittings.  Unlike the other incidents, the building did not catch fire, making Wyse Power the luckiest victim of that morning’s orgy of destruction.[41]

four-courts-2
The Four Courts, Dublin, Civil War

Black Shame

De Valera condemned the attack on the McGarry household, albeit not in very strident tones. Writing to a colleague two days later, de Valera drew a distinction between strikes on offices belonging to Free State officials, which were all very well and good, “particularly if these burnings are done effectively,” and those “as that of McGarry’s which were very badly executed” in addition to appearing “mean and petty” – apparently de Valera’s chief concern there.[42]

He might have used stronger words if he was to know the full end result. Despite the initial optimistic diagnosis for the wounded children, Emmet’s condition worsened. Five days after the attack, he died. At the vote of condolences passed by Dublin Corporation on the 18th December, one of the councillors described the occasion as a “most pathetic one”:

There was black shame on the valour of Ireland, which it would take a long time to wipe out. It was not war, but a stupid attempt to intimidate the expression of opinion by public men, and would avail nothing.[43]

The funeral of Emmet McGarry took place that same day. The cortege, large and impressive, left the Children’s Hospital, and was attended by a considerable number of Cabinet Ministers, Dáil Deputies and other notable individuals. His father was able to attend but Tomasina remained in hospital, still bed-stricken from her burns.[44]

funeral
Funeral during the Irish Civil War

Summary of a Career

The career of Seán McGarry as an Irish revolutionary followed the course of the revolution itself, from resistance to responsibility, from triumph to tragedy. Taken under the wing of Tom Clarke as a young man, McGarry was a witness, as well as a participant, to many of the intrigues and manoeuvres that made coups like the Howth Gun-running and the Easter Rising possible. A willing soldier as well as an able conspirator, McGarry spent much of the Rising by Clake’s side in the GPO, narrowly avoiding death on at least one occasion and helping to cover the escape.

He shared the imprisonment of his comrades and, like many of them, threw himself in the Sinn Féin movement upon his release. He continued on in the IRB, though his rise to its presidency and subsequent withdrawal mirrored the revival and waning of that organisation’s influence. One man neither he nor the Brotherhood could control was Éamon de Valera, and not even a spell of jail together could bridge the gap between the two men.

Although by nature low-key and content to be overshadowed by more charismatic men such as Michael Collins, McGarry played a central role in two public events. The first was his dramatic appearance at the Mansion House on March 1919 while still on the run from prison in an event carefully choreographed by Collins. The second was almost three years later in the Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, where he sparred with de Valera and Mary McSwiney.

For all his service to the cause, McGarry was not to be spared the horrors of the subsequent Civil War. As a commissioned officer in the National Army, he was a tempting target for some among the enemy but the good will of others saved him. Such good fortune did not last forever. His family bore the brunt of the conflict when their home was burnt down, resulting in the death of his nine-year old son.

Sources

[1] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 180 ; Henderson, Frank (BHM / WS 821), p. 17

[2] Bulmer Hobson Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 13,161/4/1

[3] Dore, Eamon T. (BHM / WS 392), p. 10

[4] Ó Broin, p. 163

[5] Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015), p. 289

[6] Dore, pp. 10-1

[7] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 46

[8] Ó Broin, p. 182

[9] Irish Times (quoting from the Evening Herald), 05/03/1919

[10] Lynch, Michael (BHM / WS 511), p. 89 ; Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 128

[11] McMahon, Liam (BHM / WS 274), pp. 6-7

[12] Lynch, pp. 89-91

[13] McMahon, pp. 11-3

[14] Lynch, pp. 92-4

[15] Ibid, pp. 94-5

[16] Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012), p. 27

[17] Ibid, p. 79 ; White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958)  Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

[18] Irish Times, 07/12/1922

[19] McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368) ; McGarry, Seán. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: 24SP5125), p. 14 ; ‘McGarry, Seán’,  Dictionary of Irish Biography

[20] Ó Broin, p. 184

[21] McGallogly, John (BHM / WS 244), pp. 22-3

[22] Daly, Patrick G. (BHM / WS 814), p. 40

[23] Coogan, pp. 198, 712

[24] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 31,250/2

[25] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), pp. 44, 190-2

[26] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 36

[27] Ibid, p. 40

[28] Ibid, pp. 61, 50

[29] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 42

[30] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  209. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

[31] Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006), p. 114

[32] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 250, 256

[33] Knirck, pp. 154-5

[34] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 210

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, p. 211

[37] Irish Independent, 11/01/1922

[38] Irish Times, 11/09/1922

[39] Talbot, p. 44

[40] Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), pp. 7-9

[41] Irish Times, 11/12/1922

[42] Coogan, pp. 344-5

[43] Irish Times, 19/12/1922

[44] Ibid

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Patrick G., WS 814

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGallogly, John, WS 244

McGarry, Seán, WS 368

McMahon, Liam, WS 274

 

Books

Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015)

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)

Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)

White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012)

 

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

 

National Library of Ireland

Bulmer Hobson Papers

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

 

National Military Service Pensions Collection

McGarry, Tomasina. Ref: MSP34REF60225

McGarry, Seán. Ref: Ref: 24SP5125

Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921

Introduction

When Patrick Kane sat down to give his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957, he was a man who believed he had little to show for his efforts. He had served as an adjunct in the Carlow IRA Brigade during the War of Independence – no easy task considering the difficulties which faced the brigade and the setbacks that often frustrated the best of its efforts.

Carlow_CourtHouse_01
Carlow Courthouse

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chose the losing side and was imprisoned, a misfortune which he had previously been able to avoid. Upon his release in 1924, his employment status was to follow the ebb and flow of Irish party politics. Kane had to resort to working abroad until his return to Ireland, two years after the election of his former Civil War comrades in Fianna Fáil.

For the next twenty years, he was able to work in several Irish industries until he was forced to retire. That a Fine Gael-led government was then in power made it unlikely that he would receive much support besides an inadequate pension, and so Kane faced the fraught prospect of seeking work again at the age of sixty-two. “And so, another of my ideals and ambitions has one down in dust and ashes under my feet” was the bleak verdict on which he closed his Statement.[1]

Implied Reproach?

Anyone looking at the activities of the Carlow Brigade can be prone to a similarly gloomy mood. William Nolan, a rare historian to have approached the subject, admitted that: “Carlow does not have a very active fighting story. This may sometimes have been adverted to by way of implied reproach.” As a counterbalance, Nolan reminded his readers of the leading role Carlow had played in the 1798 Rebellion, as if to reassure them that red blood did indeed run through Carlow veins, after all.[2]

Kane did not bother comforting himself with historical allusions when he retrospectively assessed the difficulties the brigade had faced: the constant flux within the Brigade leadership, the lack of weapons and ammunition, and the unfavourable nature of the local situation towards guerrilla activities, such as the intrusive presence of the Curragh Camp.[3]

Yet the grass is always greener on the other side, in war as with other things, and the difficulties that plagued the Carlow Brigade were not so obvious to its enemy. British captain E. Gerrard was in Carlow at the time of the Truce (or ‘the Armistice’, as he called it, muddling up his wars) and was struck by the level of preparation deemed necessary by the British soldiers stationed there. Every field the soldiers occupied was made into an enclosure by trees they had cut down.

Gerrard could not help but wonder what the rest of the country would be like if such defences were needed for only twenty miles from the Curragh. To Kane, the Curragh was an insurmountable obstacle for the Carlow IRA. To Gerrard, that the IRA could operate at all near the Curragh was enough to make him doubt whether the guerrillas could be defeated.[4]

Barracks_Parade_1917_1922
British soldiers on parade, Carlow Barracks

Organising the Brigade

The use of the name of the ‘Carlow Brigade’ is something of a misnomer. The perimeters that defined the scope of its activities covered considerable chunks out of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, as well as a corridor of land from Laois along the Carlow-Kildare border, meaning that three out of the six battalion areas were outside of Co Carlow.[5]

The battalions and companies were expected to be to a degree self-sufficient. They could not turn to their parent Brigade for resources for the simple reason that there was little to give. At the same time a certain amount of discipline through the battalions was the norm, with Volunteers expected to wait for orders before acting on an idea, even if it had originated from them.

cumann
Cumann na mBan member

This was generally adhered to, however frustrating: Nan Nolan, a Cumann na mBan captain, was working as a nanny in the house of a retired British army general when her brother in the Ballon company asked her to leave open a window on a prearranged date for him and his colleagues to steal the guns kept inside. By the time official permission for this home-invasion materialised, Nolan had left the job, depriving the company of its inside-woman.[6]

Such policy bred a cautious attitude within the Brigade, discouraging risk that could lead to disaster. That two of the more ambitious attempts – the creation of a flying column, and an ambush on a RIC patrol near Barrowhouse – would result in heavy losses for those involved would serve to justify this conservative approach.

Relations between officers with their colleagues in the Kildare and Wicklow Brigades were cordial – something that could not always be said for relations between different Brigades – and they occasional worked in unison together. An attack on Auxiliaries posted at Inistioge by a Kilkenny battalion was to be assisted by men from the Carlow 4th battalion, though the plan was cancelled just as the main force had assembled. More successfully, Liam Stack, the intelligence officer for the Carlow Brigade, was able to sit in on a Kilkenny IRA military court in relation to a local dispute.[8]

Maintaining Intelligence

carlow
Carlow, Dublin St.

Volunteers recognised early on the urgency of knowing before the enemy knew, the key method of achieving this being control of the mail. Through surreptitious supervision of the post offices and the occasional direct intervention on the flow of mail through the county, Volunteers were able to forewarn other ones of impending arrests, head off leakage from spies, and allow the brigade to keep riding with the enemy punches. Without its members’ skill at information warfare, it is unlikely that the Brigade could have survived long as a functioning military force.

Kane was assigned by his Brigade superiors the task of collecting what information he could. The proactive Kane had himself been elected to the National Executive of the Post Office Clerks’ Association. This gave him the scope to travel and make contacts with sympathetic workers in other post offices around the country, and by early 1920, Kane was part of a cell operating in Carlow post office with access to postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.

Four of them remained active up to the Truce, though the cell was not impregnable. The point-man for passing information onto GHQ in Dublin, Pádraig Conkling, was forced on the run in later 1920 after being threatened with shooting by Black-and-Tans. Another member, Michael Carpenter, was imprisoned in 1921 for being in possession of illegal wire-tapping equipment. His arrest led to raids on the homes of other post office workers including Kane’s, who from then on was frequently held up in the street by suspicious Crown patrols.[9]

Despite these setbacks and the increasingly straitened circumstances, the intelligence work continued on, leading to many a timely tip-off. Sometime in 1921 – conflicting accounts place the date in either mid-April or a few days before the Truce in July – a British army regiment entered Ballon with the aim of arresting the Volunteers in the company there. The wanted men were forewarned in time to stay away from their homes until the regiment and the danger had passed.

However, the Brigade was unable to achieve complete dominance over the flow of information. As part of the same series of raids that had unsuccessfully tried Ballon, British soldiers were able to net several arrests in the area around Rathvilly, indicating that not only did the soldiers know who to look for, but that there had been a failure in the Brigade’s early warning system.[10]

The Burning of the Barracks

The Carlow Brigade had not attempted anything of note until its enemy unexpectedly gave it an opening. As part of a countrywide policy by Dublin Castle to consolidate its police force into fewer, less exposed strongholds, a number of RIC barracks in Carlow were closed in April 1920.

Ballinree_RIC
Ballinree RIC Barracks, Co. Carlow

The abandoned buildings were razed by Volunteers when it became clear that their former garrisons would not be returning, giving the battalions their first taste of activity. That empty buildings make the easiest targets was an added bonus.

Even so, the campaign of destruction was not without incident: Richard Barry was badly burnt while helping to burn down Ballon Barracks. Craiguecullen Barracks was adorned by what Patrick Kane described as a “beautiful crest in cut-stone” which became a target for some Volunteers “with more enthusiasm than sense” who triumphantly hacked away at it.

A witness passed on their names in a letter to the police, though Kane, in his capacity at the post-office, was able to intercept the letter an hour later, after which the would-be informant was given twenty-four hours to leave the area. Kane described the culprit as a ‘loyalist’ though they may simply have been attempting to be civic-minded rather than political. Kane himself did not seem to have approved of the wanton vandalism but war was war.[11]

RathvillyCarlow

 

The Police Old and New

blacktans2
Black-and-Tans

The official response was to increase police pressure. In Ballon, for example, the RIC increased their patrols to a daily basis, and were aggressive enough to threaten at gunpoint suspected Volunteers as they left Mass.[12] March 1920 saw the arrival of the Black-and-Tans into Ireland to buttress the RIC with their military experience. They were to earn a dark reputation: in one of many incidents, a group of them robbed a pub after being refused service and drove off threatening to blow the building up next time. Shots were fired over a passing civilian car on the road for good measure.[13]

Similarly, Black-and-Tans caused a scene demanding drink after-hours in a pub in Ballylinan; in the same edition of the newspaper covering this, it was reported that three RIC men had resigned, including one of three years’ service in Athy, with rumours of more to come. The RIC was a decaying force by late 1920, many of its long-standing members sloughing off and replaced by recruits of a very different temperament.[14]

In contrast, the Volunteers were thriving in the duties of an irregular police force even as the official one was forgetting its own. The Athy Battalion became the retrievers of stolen property from bicycles to timber, earning praise from the Carlow Nationalist newspaper for the “excellent manner in which they are protecting the property for the citizens.”[15] An opinion piece in the newspaper went as far as to criticise those who wanted to put “every kind of duty on to a body already overburdened by the honorary duties they have assumed.”[16]

irish-volunteers2
IRA/Volunteers

September 1920

However excellently performed, police work was not what the Brigade had been intended for. September 1920 saw the Brigade finally stepping up its military efforts, albeit with mixed results.

Upon hearing of the Carlow DI visiting Tullow with only a driver to accompany him, a plan was hatched by the Tullow Company of the 3rd battalion to ambush him on his return route, but after two hours of waiting, the ambush team, including Daniel Byrne, was told that their target had prudently returned by a different route.[17]

Byrne was unclear in his Statement as to whether the intent was to kill, kidnap or rob the DI. The Tullow Company was able to launch an actual attack on an RIC patrol later in the month. According to Byrne, who was again involved, this was to rob the constables of their much-needed guns, though historian William Nolan was to claim that it was to kill two “particularly obnoxious” policemen.[18]

The ambushers had been forewarned that the RIC had been beefing up their security as of late, with four-strong units patrolling while armed. The advance party of the ambush also consisted of four men, with some others serving as backup. According to a witness, they numbered fifteen or more. This witness was Sergeant W. H. Warrington who provided a first-hand account of the ambush as part of his testimony at the resulting inquest.

War Comes to Tullow

Warrington had left Tullow Barracks with Constables Patrick Halloran, Timothy Delaney and John Gaughran, the first two at the front with the other pair following, when they encountered the ambush party waiting for them. There was a cry of ‘hands up’ from one of the party while simultaneously a shot was fired at the policemen, either from nerves or intent to kill.

Warrington promptly returned fire with his revolver, and in the resulting firefight, Warrington believed that between twenty and twenty-five shots were fired, the majority by the ambush party. If the ambushers had hoped that the element of surprise would overawe the policemen into surrendering, they were mistaken.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Warrington heard Halloran cry, his arm raised. When that proved futile, Halloran joined in instead with his own revolver. Warrington saw Delaney collapse, and one of the ambushers fall, rose and fell again, indicating a wound. The attackers retreated while Warrington and Halloran hurried to the safety of their barracks, from where they were reinforced by more of their colleagues.

Gaughan was found dead, his undergarments soaked in blood, in a nearby house where he had gone for cover before haemorrhaging to death from an abdomen wound. Delaney had died where he had fallen. Both revolvers of the slain men were found not to have been discharged and had remained fully loaded. Rumour was that one of the slain policemen had been in the last week of his job, having given in his resignation.[19]

Further proof of the “mischances of guerrilla warfare,” as William Nolan put it, was how the two dead men had been well-respected and liked, even by the Volunteers, while the intended targets had escaped with only minor injuries, a view supported by Nan Nolan, who remembered some of the shooters saying afterwards that the wrong men had been shot (although she was personally unsympathetic due to a earlier bout of comparatively mild questioning in the street by Constable Delaney).[20]

RICgroup
RIC men

A Hornet’s Nest

Byrne did not say whether the ambush party had taken the guns from the slain constables and thus could have something to show for their botched robbery, if robbery had been the primary motive. The resulting hornets’ nest astir may have made the ambush more trouble than it was worth. Two shops were burnt down in the middle of the night as a reprisal. Tullow residents heard a rifle crack, almost as if it was a signal, followed by a volley of about ten rounds in succession.

Then there was a bomb explosion, and the shop of the Murphy Brothers burst into flames, followed by the shop of William Murphy and Sons further up the road. The fire threatened to consume the rest of the street, despite the best efforts of a team of people using buckets of water, until the Carlow Fire Brigade arrived with fifty Volunteers in tow. Realising that the burning shops were lost causes, the Fire Brigade focused on containing the fire, operating the hose while the Volunteers pumped the water from the river.

Once the fires had finally died down and the damage could be assessed, it was found that in addition to the fire-gutted shops, another store had been robbed of £100 worth of goods. The damage to Tullow was more than just material: rumours of further reprisals drove almost two-thirds of the population to seek refuge in surrounding villages or country houses, making the following Friday fair the smallest on record.[21]

Numerous arrests by the RIC and British army followed, with suspects stripped to see if they had any wounds to indicate recent combat. Byrne threatened with a gun in his mouth by two constables before being released but forced to go on the run two days later upon hearing that he was still a wanted man. That was the effective end of Byrne’s time as an active combatant, for he remained a fugitive until the Treaty ten months later, and the rest of his Statement after the telling of his flight is brief.[22]

Fortune Favours the Bold?

The early months of 1921 saw another surge in Brigade activities. A flying column was formed which would be free to move through the territories of the different battalions, with the equipment necessary to take the fight to the enemy. On the 21st of April, however, the column was surprised by a Crown patrol and quickly overwhelmed with virtually all of its members captured.[23]

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA members

Shortly afterwards, on 16th of May, an RIC patrol of four constables and a sergeant were fired at while cycling towards Barrowhouse, Co Laois, the territory of the 5th battalion. No one in that battalion would submit a Statement to the BMH, and all that Kane knew of it was that two Volunteers had been killed in what he described as a “badly sited ambush”, so we are dependent on the contemporary reporting of the Carlow Nationalist, which drew on the official reports from Dublin Castle and on what local people had heard.

Upon the first shots, the RIC patrol dismounted from their bicycles and returned fire. By the time Crown reinforcements arrived, the ambushers had been driven back, leaving behind two of their own: James Lacey and William Connor. From the nature of their wounds, death was judged to have been near instantaneous, Lacey having had a wound to his side, and Connor in the neck. Of the RIC patrol, one man had been wounded.

A number of weapons discarded by the fleeing ambushers were also found on the scene. The official version of events reported the number of ambushers to have been twenty, but people in the vicinity judged them to have been five to seven based on the noise of the guns heard.

The local mood was described by the Carlow Nationalist as having been one of consternation, as well it might. Shortly afterwards, a group of ten men, undoubtedly of the Crown forces, with their faces hidden under capes, descended on Barrowhouse, interrogating members of the Lynch family as to the identities of the ambush party, before burning down their home along with a Sinn Féin hall. That another Crown patrol would arrive later to ask for descriptions of the men involved would suggest that it had been an unauthorised action, unlike the one in Tullow the year before, where the DI displayed a marked disinterest in investigating.

The bodies of Lacey and Connor were released to their families for burial, leading the Nationalist to comment on the coincidences of two men who had been of the same age (26) and born on the same day, baptised on the same day, killed on the same day and were finally to be buried on the same day. The 5th battalion may have previously won praise for its honorary police work, but as a guerrilla force it had been a miserable failure.[24]

Lesser Battles

Both the formation of the flying column and the ambush on a decently-sized RIC patrol were risky gambits by the Brigade which showed an increasing confidence and a desire to accomplish as much as possible. However, their failures showed the dangers of pitting enthusiastic amateurs against trained soldiers, with the price paid in blood and lost weaponry.

Carlow-Bridge
Carlow Bridge

More successful for the Brigade were its lower-level forms of harassment. Blocking roads by felling trees across the road or damaging bridges was ideal in that it disrupted enemy patrols while avoiding dangerous contact with them. The men of the 3rd battalion were proficient at this type of work, managing one or two blockages a week, after learning when and where a Crown patrol was due to come by to maximise the frustration. Such activities were not always without consequences – the destruction of the bridge at Rathmore led to a big round-up and the arrest of a company captain – but it was preferable to the death or injury that a more direct form of warfare risked.[25]

Raids on mail trains or postmen during their rounds occurred throughout the early months of 1921 and up to the Truce, with authorities seemingly helpless to stop it. Such raids were done to check for any letters reporting to the RIC, with the bonus of police codes being found from one robbery. Often the mail would simply not be returned; in other cases, the letters would be returned after certain parts had been censored and marked ‘passed by the IRA’, helping to reinforce the sense that the guerrillas were one step ahead of anyone, whether the authorities or the public.[26]

military_002
Military barracks, Carlow

The RIC barracks remained a presence as long as their garrisons did. Outside their walls the Carlow Volunteers could be brazen, such as when a military truck waiting outside Carlow Barracks was hijacked and found burnt elsewhere. But while attacks were planned on various barracks, none were carried out. Considering the past times the Brigade had bitten off more than it could chew, that was probably just as well for it.[27]

 

Sergeant Boyle

Attacks on RIC personnel continued, preferably if they could be caught alone and by surprise. Even so, the targets had an inconvenient tendency to shoot back.

Sergeant Boyle was shot on the 23rd of March, 1921, while riding his bicycle back to Carlow Barracks from his residence in Graiguecullen. Boyle was hit twice, high in the back and in his left jaw under the eye, and while Kane believed that it was the wearing of a chain waistcoat that saved Boyle’s life, this armour obviously would have done nothing about the latter injury.

The wounded Boyle was able to fire back, driving off his attackers, and upon being found by sympathetic passer-bys, was transferred to Dublin Military Hospital where, so the Nationalist assured its readers, he had “every hope of a speedy recovery.” Sergeant Boyle was still alive by the time Kane submitted his BMH Statement in 1957, a tribute to either the skills of the Military Hospital doctors, the precaution of a chain waistcoat or the hardiness of Boyle.[28]

Limerick_RIC
RIC men

James Duffy

A month later, thirty-year old Constable James Duffy, a Black-and-Tan, was walking with a friend, Harry James, when they were ambushed by three gunmen who had been waiting in a hedge. Two of them fired at Duffy, indicating that he was the primary target despite him being dressed in civilian attire, while the other fired at James, who fled despite receiving two wounds on his shoulder and hip. Duffy’s body was found to have been ridden with bullets, including one that had been fired under the chin at close-range, his assassins having left nothing to chance.

A son of a well-known horse-dealer, Duffy had served four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War for which he had been decorated. The shooting occurred in the territory of the 1st battalion, during the time when the flying column was encamped in the same area, so the attack can be attributed to either of these two groups.

According to Kane, Duffy was shot because he was investigating the area, using James as his spy, while the fact that the two men had been returning from a pub when attacked would suggest that the relationship between the two was a social one – two ideas that are, of course, not mutually exclusive.[29]

Sergeant Farrell

The last attempt by the Brigade to strike a blow before the Truce was the shooting and wounding of Sergeant Farrell in Borris, June 1921. The task was assigned to John Hynes, the tough, hands-on Vice O/C of the 4th battalion. Farrell had been on the GHQ’s ‘black list’ for some time, as he was reputed to have been part of the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain of Cork.

Hynes received his orders on Friday evening, giving him time to assess that the best opportunity for an attempt on Farrell’s life was in the morning when he left the improvised RIC barracks at the Protestant school, where he slept, for breakfast at his home in town. Hynes selected three men to accompany him as part of the hit squad. They were only just getting into position behind a wall when Farrell came into sight.

Hynes fired at Farrell, prompting the sergeant to shoot back before running into the cover of the wall and back towards the barracks. Farrell made to the barracks’ gate before collapsing in the road from his wounds. The ambush team retreated at that stage, either because the rest of the barracks’ garrison was returning fire at this point, according to Hynes, or because of the number of people who were heading to Mass made a clear shot too difficult (according to a second-hand account). Farrell was put on a motor car by his colleagues to the hospital where he recovered.[30]

Tough at the Top

The other casualty of the Farrell shooting was the position of the 1st Battalion O/C Pierce Murphy. He was demoted by GHQ for his “conscientious objections” in refusing to give orders to shoot Farrell, an awkward virtue in a guerrilla leader.[31]

The Carlow Brigade had a high turnover of its officers, either from insufficient aggression as with Murphy, internal politics (Patrick Kane believed Brigade O/C Eamon Malone had been retired following the Truce for not being a “complaisant yes-man”) or the ever-present danger of arrest.[32]

The last point was illustrated when the 3rd battalion O/C Michael Keating had to go on the run following the slayings of Constables Delaney and Gaughran. Keating left his Vice O/C William Donohue as the replacement O/C and promoting Matthew Cullen to Vice O/C accordingly. Both Donohue and Cullen were arrested a month later, forcing another round of rapid promotions to cover them. Little wonder, then, that Kane thought dimly of the quality of the officers left by the time the Truce came.[33]

Final Thoughts

In reviewing the Carlow parishes of Ballon and Myshall during the War of Independence, Nan Nolan felt confident enough to assert that: “Other people and places may have been lucky enough to get better headlines, but any man in Ireland who had been through these two parishes during the four glorious years spoke only the best of them.”

As an example of this, Nan Nolan related how the Ballow Company blockaded the village due to the arrival of over a hundred British soldiers in June 1921. The Volunteers were mobilised at night, and did not retire home in the early hours of the morning until all the roads had been blocked with timber and the bridges destroyed, denying entrance to Ballon by anything bigger than a bicycle. It was an undeniably impressive feat on the part of the Ballon Company in the swiftness, thoroughness and secrecy of its operation.[34]

However, it is also important to note that the blockade was done after the British convoy had already left Ballow. There was no suggestion at even a consideration to confront the enemy head-on. Going by the records of other units, it is hard to imagine any such attempt resulting in anything other than a bloody loss for the Brigade.

So there is more than a touch of the ridiculous to Nolan’s suggestion that the lack of fame for Carlow compared to that for other counties during this period can be attributed to opportune headlines. Nowhere was there anything to match the more dramatic actions undertaken by the likes of the Cork or Dublin Brigades, and nothing comparable to the Kilmichael Ambush, Crossbarry, the burning of the Customs House or Bloody Sunday.

Yet, by the time of the Truce, the Carlow Brigade was still a functioning force. How well it would have continued to be so is a debatable issue: Nolan’s optimistic take can be contrasted with Patrick Kane’s shock at the quality of the remaining officers. The Brigade had fought small, and when it had tried to fight big it had lost badly. But it had fought all the same, from the start of the War to the end, and in the most important area of accomplishment, it could boast of equal status to all the others: it had survived.

Carlow-IRA-1966
Carlow IRA veterans marching through Carlow, 1966

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (24/09/2014)

See also: Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921

 

References

[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 27-9

[2] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 582

[3] Kane, p. 13

[4] Gerrard, E. (BMH / WS 348), p. 8

[5] Nolan, Willian, p. 582

[6] Nolan, Nan (BMH / WS 1441), pp. 6-7

[7] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 10

[8] Brennan, James (BMH / WS 1102), p. 12

[9] Kane, p. 3, 6-7

[10] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12 ; Fitzpatrick, Michael (BMH / WS 1443), p. 6 ; McGill, John (BMH / WS 1616), p. 10

[11] Fitzpatrick, p. 2 ; Kane, p. 11

[12] Nolan, Nan, pp. 5-6

[13] Carlow Nationalist, 28/08/1920

[14] Ibid, 14/08/1920

[15] Ibid, 03/07/1920

[16] Ibid, 11/09/1920

[17] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p. 3

[18] Nolan, William, p. 585

[19] Nationalist, 18/09/1920 ; McGill, p. 5

[20] Nolan, William, p. 585 ; Nolan, Nan, p. 7

[21] Nationalist, 18/09/1920

[22] Byrne, pp. 3-4 ; McGill, pp. 5-6

[23] Kane, pp. 16-18

[24] Ibid, p. 9 ; Nationalist, 21/05/1921

[25] Ibid ; McGill, pp. 6-7

[26] Ryan, p. 5 ; Nationalist, 09/07/1921, 02/05/1921

[27] Nationalist, 18/06/1921

[28] Kane, p. 16 ; Nationalist, 26/03/1921

[29] Nationalist, 09/04/1921 ;  Kane, p. 16

[30] Hynes, John (BMH / WS 1496), pp. 16-7 ; Ryan, p. 9

[31] Hynes, p.17 ; Kane, p. 9

[32] Kane, p. 21

[33] Ibid, p. 22 ; McGill, p. 6

[34] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Brennan, James, WS 1102

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Fitzpatrick, Michael, WS 1443

Gerrard, E., WS 348

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

McGill, John, WS 1616

Nolan, Nan, WS 1441

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442

Article

Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970

Newspaper

Carlow Nationalist

Undefeated: The Attack and Defence of Clara RIC Barracks, June 1920

Reminisces

From the 1936 interview with Seán Robbins, former quartermaster of the 2nd Offaly Brigade:

Q. Our view about Clara Barracks is – whether we are right or wrong – that it was a major engagement for some and not a major engagement for others?

S.R. Yes.

Q. A man that was in the mill, how would he be situated?

S.R. That was one of the most dangerous positions.

Q. Was he in the actual fight?

S.R. Yes. And William’s house on the opposite side was dangerous.

Q. Was that the Sergeant’s house?

S.R. The sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. Was that William’s house?

S.R. William’s house was the opposite side, the mill was in front of the barracks and the sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. It would have been a bad place?

S.R. It was. As a matter of fact there were two or three men lost there, two wounded and one died. Two mained [sic] and one seriously wounded.[1]

Record of the RIC

On the night of 2nd June 1920, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks in Clara, Co. Offaly (then King’s County), was the target of a coordinated assault by several local companies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The attack had been well-planned with a shrewd understanding in how to isolate a target beforehand and an array of sophisticated, if unsubtle, techniques against a fortified position.

The RIC, on the other hand, was finding itself to be an antiquated institution and one ill-prepared for the rigours of confronting a guerrilla war. The burden of pacifying the unruly country increasingly fell upon the shoulders of the British Army regiments stationed in Ireland.

Members_Of_The_Royal_Irish_Constabulary
RIC policemen

In assessing the state of the RIC by May 1920, an internal review of the Army’s performance during the Irish Troubles, Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921 (drafted in 1922), found that its ally had:

…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.[2]

While not unsympathetic to the plight of the besieged police force, Record pointed to the excess of elderly timeservers in its ranks, men whose primary interest was their forthcoming pensions. To survive, the RIC would need recruits with the strength and vigour of youth.

Such fresh blood was to be found and would quickly taint the name of the RIC with their own: the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. It was a policy that would go horribly right but, in May 1920, no one amongst the British forces could deny that the police were in dire need of an overhaul:

In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, though no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their military training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle…hand and rifle grenades, rockets and Verey light signals, and in the defence arrangements of their barracks.[3]

The RIC barracks were a particularly weak link in the Crown chain. Many were in unsuitable positions, having not been built to defend against an organised assault. The one on Clara Barracks was singled out by Record as an example of such an attack and a demonstration of the tactics used by the IRA.[4]

irishpolice4
RIC police and barracks

Clara Barracks

Clara Barrack stood in the middle of the town as a small two-storied stone building with a slate roof and steel shutters over its windows. At one end, it adjoined a large flour-mill and at the other were the quarters of Sergeant Somers’ wife and children.

Somers manned the building with an addition of eight armed constables. It made a formidable target, one that required the men of the Clara, Tullamore, Rahan, Streamstown and Ballycomber companies to come out in full force.

main_st__clara__co_offaly__ireland_1905_to_1910.jpg_thumbnail0_w4110_h3080_s0_thumb
Main Street, Clara

At midnight, the tramp of marching feet could be heard through the streets of Clara. Volunteers had already been assigned to various tasks such as stealing tins of petrol from a nearby garage, cutting telephone wires or felling trees across all roads leading to the town. Reinforcements to the beleaguered barracks would not be coming quickly, if at all.

In addition, the barracks in the nearby village of Geashill was attacked. The fight there lasted for less than an hour and the only causalities it caused were smashed windows but it had succeeded in its primary aim as a feint.

In Clara, the door to the Somers’ family quarters was kicked in. With a touch of chivalry, the wife and children of the Sergeant were taken to the safety of the post office. At the same time, the windows of William’s shop in the main street, opposite the barracks, were smashed in by rifle-butts as men took up position. There, the men barricaded the top windows as best they could with mattresses, furniture and anything else at hand. The mill at the end of the barracks was likewise occupied.[5]

Strength in Numbers?

Despite the relative finesse of the operation, it was Seán Robbins’ opinion that the IRA’s superiority in numbers had also been a hindrance:

Q. You can see the trouble about Clara Barracks attack. There was a lot of men in the attack on Clara that were not in dangerous positions?

S.R. That is what happened there were too many men there. The Brigade Commandant mobilised too many. He mobilised the first and second battalion of Offaly I and also portion of Offaly II took part. That is what happened the men were on top of one another.[6]

The numbers of the Volunteers involved is uncertain. Two contemporary newspaper accounts reported numbers of 300 and 100-200. Though Record believed the 300 estimate an exaggerated one, Robbins also judged the participants to have been up to that same number, making it the most likely.[7]

The Fight

Inhabitants of Clara and nearby towns such as Birr were awoken that night by the sounds of gunshots and lightning-like flashes. The latter were from the Verey flare guns that the RIC garrison were sending up to call for aid. They made a striking impression on Seán O’Neill, one of the participants in the attack, as he later described:

While we were in the yard showers of multi-coloured verey lights came down on top of us. When the verey lights were fired they went right into the air like a star, then spread out like miniature fiery balls of many brilliant colours.[8]

Despite such eye-catching splendour being visible all the way to Birr, the garrison was on its own. From their positions in William’s shop and the mill, the Volunteers kept up a hail of fire on the barracks with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Despite several calls to surrender, the besieged police responded vigorously with their own guns through the apertures of the steel shutters covering the windows.

North-Longford-Flying-Column-300x271
IRA/Irish Volunteers

In order to break the stalemate, those IRA men in the Somers’ family quarters and the mill attempted to break through the adjoining walls to the barracks. Posted to the rear of the building, O’Neill could hear the sledgehammers and crowbars at work in the Sergeant’s house whenever there was a lull in the fighting.

Explosions

At this point, the two main sources for the attack – Record and O’Neill – diverge (though otherwise they are notably congruent). In the former, the assailants in the Somers’ home were able to use explosives to blow a hole through the wall into the first floor of the barracks and behind where a constable was busy firing from a window. The quick-witted policeman was able to throw several bombs through the sudden hole, throwing his enemy into disarray. The IRA mole team in the mill, on the other hand, failed in their own efforts to break through to the barracks.

O’Neill’s version, however, has it that it was the Volunteers in the mill who succeeded in blasting through. O’Neill says nothing about the success of the Volunteers in the Sergeant’s quarters, only that they were able to let off an explosion in the wall which apparently went nowhere.

volunteers
IRA/Irish Volunteers

One of the Volunteers in the mill, Martin Fleming – in O’Neill’s account – shouted though the gaping hole for the defendants to surrender. Fatalities at this stage in the War of Independence had been relatively light, and the intent of the Clara attackers seems to have been to secure the barracks with the least bloodshed possible; otherwise, they could have thrown bombs through the hole in the wall as soon as they could. Fleming received for his troubles a bomb of the RIC’s own which almost blew his arm off.[9]

Retreat

With the attack stalled and dawn starting to break, the Volunteers decided by 3 am to retreat. They had suffered two other causalities besides Fleming, both while posted in William’s shop: Patrick Seery from a bullet to the chest and Ned Brennan in the hip. It was not surprising that Robbins would remember that position as a dangerous one.

O’Neill remembered Robbins helping Seery to a priest’s house to be anointed, the prognosis clearly a grim one. O’Neill, for his part, assisted in taking Fleming and Brennan to the same priest, an experience that was to haunt him:

It was not a pleasant scene in view of the failure to take the barracks to see the footpath strewn with the blood of our men. I shall not easily forget the condition of Seery who had a large hole in his chest and Fleming whose hand, from above the wrist, was almost completely severed.[10]

It was not until 5:30 am that Tullamore Barracks received news of the attack, and 6:30 when army reinforcements arrived in Clara, by which time the attackers were long gone.

Despite their failure to capture the barracks, the Volunteers had at least been able to isolate it, perhaps a little too well: the Birr-Roscrea train was delayed that morning by almost two and a half hours due to tampered wires, and a motorist from Mullingar crashed his car against a tree across the road. Unharmed, the driver and his passenger made the rest of the journey to Athlone by foot.

Record proudly recorded what the enemy had had to abandon in their haste to depart: “One rifle, a shot gun, several bombs, articles of clothing, full tins of petrol and a sprayer.” It was a good indicator of the armoury the Offaly IRA had at its disposal.[11]

The Westmeath Guardian told of the blood found on the scene as well as a cap with a bullet-hole found in the peak, testifying to the intensity of the fight. Another newspaper, The Leinster Chronicle, was pithier: left behind on the scene had been a “considerable quantity of arms, petrol and blood.”[12]

Patrick Seery

The RIC garrison had suffered no causalities. Of the IRA, Brennan and Fleming survived their injuries, though the latter lost his arm and wore an artificial one in later years.[13]

Seery, however, lingered on before dying in September while at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. He was 31 years old. His funeral in his native district of Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath, was a grand affair and a show of strength by his comrades. Thousands of Volunteers from the Offaly and Mullingar battalions joined the mile-long funeral procession, marching two deep while keeping time with the Tullamore Pipers’ Band.

volunteersDrilling
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Upon reaching the cemetery, the tricolour-draped coffin was borne on the shoulders of Volunteers, and a military salute was fired over the grave. The farewell did not go entirely without a hitch. A member of the firing party was impressed by his revolver’s lack of kick, saying that he had never fired a finer gun. On closer inspection, it transpired that the revolver had not fired at all due to dud ammunition, not that anyone had noticed at the time.

While reporting on the funeral, the Westmeath Guardian neglected to mention the cause of death. The Leinster Chronicle, bolder or better informed, said that the deceased had perished from wounds received from the police, though it did not link him specifically to the attack on Clara Barracks four months ago.[14]

Those Left Behind

In death, Seery was indisputably a hero. His surviving family would not find thing so simple. In 1924, two of his siblings, Joseph and Jane, made separate claims to the new Free State government for compensation for their brother’s death.

The officer who initially investigated the claims on behalf of the Army Pensions Board came back with a strong recommendation for them to be accepted. In addition to being one of the first IRA men killed in the War of Independence, Seery had been “held in the highest esteem in his Brigade, and his death was a big loss” to his comrades.

The loss to his bereaved kinsfolk was also keenly felt, according to the investigating officer. As Patrick had been the chief breadwinner of the family, his surviving three siblings were in dire straits, not to mention poor health, without him and their father, who had died of shattered nerves three years after his son.

Eschewing subtlety altogether, the investigator appealed for the healing of Civil War divisions: “payment of a pension would enhance the reputation of the Government in an area where it has not too many friends.”[15]

Unimpressed, the Army Pensions Board complained that the initial report on the Seery family’s affairs had been contradictory and padded with hearsay. A follow-up investigation found that the family’s finances were in considerably better health than they had let on. They had not been dependant on Patrick’s earnings and none of his siblings were incapacitated through poor health. Consequently, both claims were rejected.

A later claim by a second sister, Anne, in 1934, and a second attempt by Joseph Seery were likewise turned down due to their claims of dependency being unproven. Patrick Seery may have died for a free Ireland but not necessarily a credulous one.[16]

The Crown Response

Less than a fortnight after Seery’s funeral, Somers, now Head Constable, applied to the Tullamore Quarter Session Court for compensation. The interior of his family’s quarters had been wrecked by the fighting four months ago, and furniture of good and expensive quality reduced to matchwood. Judge Fleming – any relation to Martin Fleming unknown – regarded Somers’ request for £120 as moderate compared to those claimed elsewhere from barrack attacks and generously amended the amount to £150 before awarding it.[17]

Optimized.RIC_transport_div_1921
RIC policemen

Head Constable Somers was not the only one who benefitted from the successful defence of Clara Barracks. The RIC victory there had, in the professional opinion of Record, helped raise the morale of the beleaguered police force. It also sharpened the military response of the British authorities, showing them the weak spots that needed to be strengthened:

  1. The RIC to be concentrated in larger garrisons than before.
  2. Directive boards to be set up at all military look-out posts, and the firing of alarm signals from neighbouring barracks to be practised.
  3. Instructions in the care and firing of rockets and other alarm signals to be offered to soldiers and RIC.
  4. Barracks in obviously untenable positions to be evacuated.
  5. Military lorries to carry equipment that would help clear roadblocks, road trenches or damaged bridges, such as cross-cut saws, hawsers and temporary bridging equipment.

Record claimed that the repulse of the attack also had a depressing effect on the local IRA. If that was so, then there were no signs of it. Clara Barracks did not last long after its successful defence. It was one of the outposts evacuated by its garrison, and was promptly razed by the vengeful Volunteers.[18]

Unintentionally undermining its own optimistic take on the situation after the Clara Barracks defence, Record listed the Clara-Tullamore as one of the “bad districts” due to the lack of Crown forces there. Regardless of its defeat, the Offaly IRA had been given free rein. One side was undefeated but it was the other who had won.[19]

See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

References

[1] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[2] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 31

[5] Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, Seán (BHM / WS 1219), pp. 88-89 ; Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920

[6] MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[7] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 49

[8] O’Neill, p. 89

[9] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, p. 89

[10] O’Neill, p. 90

[11] Sheehan, p. 173

[12] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920

[13] O’Neill, p. 90

[14] Leinster Reporter, 11/09/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 10/09/1920 ; Dockery, Seán (BHM / WS 1711), p. 7

[15] Military Service Pensions Collection, A11127, pp. 5, 11

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, 1D233, pp. 3, 46, 50-51 ; 33APB49, p. 4

[17] King’s County Chronicle, 21/09/1920

[18] Sheehan, p. 173

[19] Ibid, p. 74

Bibliography

Book

Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Dockery, Seán F., WS 1711

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

Newspapers

King’s County Chronicle

Leinster Reporter

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection

A11127

MA/MSPC/RO/178

1D233

33APB49