A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

A Man for all the Seasons

Among the surviving voices from the War of Independence, Séumas Robinson was an unusually loquacious one. While most Statements submitted to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) were content to begin with an overview of pedestrian facts – e.g. family history, early life and influences, any notable relatives – Robinson’s Statement started his with a playfully philosophical burst:

Somewhere deep in the camera (or is it the anti-camera?) of my cerebrum (or is it my cerebellum?), whose loci, by the way, are the frontal lobes of the cranium of this and every other specimen of homo-sapiens – there lurks furtively and nebulously, nevertheless positively, a thing, a something, a conception (deception?), a perception, an inception, that the following agglomeration of reminisces will be “my Last Will and Testament.[1]

As this quirky, almost singsong, opening sentence would suggest, Robinson was more than just another IRA veteran recalling his war stories for posterity and a pension. For one, he was a full-time staff member of the BMH, which would explain his confidence in beginning his Statement on his own terms instead of following the lead of his interviewer and answering from the list of pre-arranged questions.

Robinson had no time for that, what with the amount he had to say, pent-up as it was from the previous thirty years of silence. That the aforementioned agglomeration of reminiscences of his be known and recorded was a matter of utmost importance to him, despite his concern that he was not in a position to do them justice.

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The stated reasons for his worry were many: he was no historian. He had been too close to the events to give them a proper overview like an historian should. History had to be full of facts, and facts were half-lies anyway, so what was the use of history in the first place? If Robinson had been present when Henry Ford had declared that history was more or less bunk, he would undoubtedly have nodded in appreciation (however shocked he would have been at the car tycoon’s atheism, given his devout Catholicism).

Robinson’s soliloquy as the prologue to his Statement is a rambling masterpiece of charming self-doubt, gentle self-deprecation and cheerful cynicism at the follies of man in thinking he can know his own past: “Only an angel can record the truth-absolute.”[2]

It is also a complete façade and one that did not take very long to drop. Robinson was to display throughout the rest of his Statement a very definite certainty in the idea of a truth-absolute, in this world as much as the one of angels, as well as a hot-blooded readiness to spring into attack should his place in history be threatened by unscrupulous and uncouth hoaxers.

And why not? His status was not inconsiderate. He had fought at the Easter Rising and helped change the course of Irish history. During the War of Independence, he had been commander of the Third Tipperary Brigade and then second-in-command to the Second Southern Division. In the theatre of politics he had been elected TD for Waterford-Tipperary East in 1920, had argued vigorously in the Dáil debates over the Treaty, against which he would take up arms against in the name of the Republic, and in the years of peace afterwards he was a Fianna Fáil Senator to the Seanad Éireann.

Patriot, guerrilla leader, elected representative, war hero, a historian for all his protests, and finally a statesman – Séumas Robinson had been a man of success in many a field. And yet he was to be constantly tormented, enraged and provoked into writing streams of vehement counter-attacks by the burning conviction that his colleague and brother-in-arms, Dan Breen, the arch-hoaxer, had, with the connivance of the cold-hearted and ungrateful people of Tipperary, fucked him over.

DanBreen_SeanHogan_chicago
Dan Breen (seated)

Kathleen Kincaid

breenRobinson’s contention was that Breen had falsely made several claims about his role in the War of Independence through his 1924 memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom. It was a case he would make repeatedly, in his Statement and in the numerous letters he wrote to various newspapers or individuals and later collected in the appendix of his Statement.

Not all the letters were written by himself, for he had adopted an ally in his war of words: his sister-in-law, Kathleen Kincaid. While too young to contribute anything herself during the War of Independence, Kincaid was steeped in the struggle by virtue of her family home of 71 Heytesbury Street, Dublin. This had been used as a safe-house and meeting-place for those on the run, including many famous names such as Ernie O’Malley, Seán McBride and Liam Lynch, among others, and she claimed to have “met or saw and heard nearly everyone of the real fighting men” through this.[3]

Kincaid wore her address as a medal of honour; when the luckless editor of the Sunday Press refused to print an earlier letter on the grounds of excessive length, Kincaid began her response by unsheathing the sharp edge of her research skills:

Dear Mr Feehan,

As you see, I have learned your name. I have also learned you are a South Tipperary man from Clonmel.

(The Dear Mr Feehan having omitted his name and address in his preceding rejection of her earlier letter, to no avail)

…and then by challenging him on his suspicious absence from the 71 Heytesbury Street Hall-of-Fame:

I met many men and some women from Clonmel in the old days of “71”; but I never heard of you. You must have been as young as myself – too young to do anything…What do you say?[4]

Feehan very sensibly did not venture an answer to that one.

Given her zeal for her brother-in-law’s cause, the historian Joe Ambrose decided that “Robinson clearly looked over Mrs Kincaid’s shoulder as she wrote” as if she was merely a convenient pen for Robinson.[5] But when comparing her letters with his, their writing styles were very different: his with a tendency towards long-windedness and waffling around the issue, while she wasted little time in getting to the point and going for the jugular. Whatever else one may think of the woman and her letters, she was a believer.

Making Claims

While not included in every letter of theirs, Robinson’s and Kincaid’s main points of contention were that Breen had been:

  1. Never elected Brigade O/C and had never obtained rank above that of Quartermaster.
  2. Not present in the attacks on the RIC barracks at Drangan or Hollyford, or indeed in charge of any fight.
  3. Wounded ‘only’ two times – once below the collar-bone, and the other through the calf – and not twenty-two times as claimed.[6]

The first two points will be addressed further in the article. The third one is hard to prove either way without access to Breen’s medical history, but as two bullet-wounds are still two more than what most people have had in their lives, it was perhaps unduly petty on Robinson’s part to make an issue out of it.

Nonetheless, it was an attack point Robinson pressed upon in a private letter to a friend. Writing in 1952, Robinson tarred Breen with the worst brush that a Fianna Fáil member and former Anti-Treatyite could tar another with: association with the ‘Staters’:

The Staters gave Dan Breen a house and a farm, gave him 200% of disability pension (he had only two bullet wounds in the whole of his I.R.A career in Ireland – wounds that healed up immediately and, why did these same Staters, when they got back to power as a coalition, in the first 24 hours, almost, of their existence rush through a bill through the Dáil granting him (not by name!) £3,000 for Doctors’ bills “contracted in the U.S.A.”[7]

The coalition mentioned had been the Inter-Party Government of John A. Costello. Twenty-eight years after the end of the Civil War and the opposition party was still ‘the Staters’. For Robinson, as with others, the past war had never really ended.

Robinson’s picking at this scab was perhaps aggravated by his own wrangles with medical pensions. In 1940, he applied for expenses for the damaging effects on his health caused by the irregular meals, damp conditions and the like from being on the run during his IRA days. This claim lingered in bureaucratic limbo until 1943, when a medical examination was arranged for Robinson in order to assess the validity of his claim. Robinson did not attend the appointment and when contacted further by the Army Pensions Board, dropped his claim altogether.[8]

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

Et Tu, Tipperary?

Breen’s enablers in what Robinson dubbed with entertaining bombast ‘the Great Tipperary Hoax’ were none the less than the people of Tipperary. Or so Robinson claimed in an unusual theory as to why his side of the story was not common knowledge already.

A native of Belfast, Robinson believed that the Tipperary people preferred to embrace one of their own, the Tipperary native Breen, as the hero in the War of Independence in their county. “Truth in a noose when it comes to trying to get any Tipperary man to expose the ‘Great Tipperary Hoax,” Robinson was supposed to have muttered to Kincaid upon hearing of how another of her letters had been rejected.[9]

Plaintively, Robinson professed to hold out hope that someday there would appear “some generous-minded Tipperary man to undo at least some of the ungenerous treatment I have received.”[10] As of yet, no such generous-minded native of Tipperary has emerged.

Who’s in Charge?

Robinson had been O/C of the Third Tipperary Brigade when it was formed in October 1918, with Seán Treacy as Vice Commandant, and Breen as Quartermaster. But Robinson was to frequently complain that Breen had falsely passed himself off as the O/C in Robinson’s place. The famous wanted poster of Breen, identifying him as the one who “calls himself Commandant of the Third Tipperary Brigade” was a particular source of frustration for Robinson, especially as it continued to be reprinted in books afterwards.[11]

Daniel_Breen_police_notice.jpg

As Robinson’s claim to fame was in large part his command of one of the most renowned fighting units in the War of Independence, it is understandable that such a hierarchical intrusion would infuriate him.

Breen did say in his memoir that he had been O/C but before Robinson, in the spring of 1918, prior to the official forming of the Brigade.[12] The wanted poster was printed after this time, when Breen was wanted for murder, so it can be explained by the authorities’ information being out of date.

Robinson insisted that Breen had never had a position higher than that of Quartermaster. But a contemporary, Patrick O’Dwyer, remembered Breen as the O/C around the time of October 1918, suggesting that Breen had held the post up to Robinson’s election.[13] Robinson was either wrong or refused to consider any Brigade position before that of October 1918 as legitimate.

The Man Not Present?

Perhaps the most serious claim of Robinson’s is that Breen lied in his memoir about being present at the assaults by the Third Tipperary Brigade on the Hollyford and Drangan Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Barracks, the former on the May 1920 and the latter on June 1920.

Escape - O'Malley
Ernie O’Malley

A possible tie-breaker here is Ernie O’Malley, who helped lead the attacks on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks with Robinson. O’Malley wrote accounts of his own, first as in his War of Independence memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, published in 1936, and later a series of articles in the mid-1950s that were published under Raids and Rallies.[14]

In O’Malley’s accounts of the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, Breen does not appear in either, though he does in the assault on the Rearcross barracks, which Robinson did not deny. Had he been present at either Hollyford or Drangan, it would have been strange for Breen to have not made a mention of it, given how well know Breen would have been to O’Malley’s readers. Thus we may tentatively conclude that Breen did lie about having been present at the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, and that Robinson was entirely correct in this.

hollyford
Hollyford RIC Barracks

Father Colmcille

The letters collected in the Statement’s appendix pertain to a number of subjects from this period. Of those letters centring the ‘Danbreenofile’ distortion view of history – as Robinson, with his flair for phrase-making, put it – four were written by Robinson.[15] One was to the Irish Press, and had been refused publication. The other three were part of the same convoluted mission and require an explanation onto themselves.

While a casual reader browsing through the appendix may think at first that these three letters were unrelated except in subject material, they were written together in response to a planned book about the Third Tipperary Brigade by a Father An tAthair Colmcille. Samples of the text had been published in the Irish Press, and Robinson had had the chance to read a typescript of the book, given to him by Seán Fitzpatrick, his former Brigade adjutant, who had been asked to check it for inaccuracies by Father Colmcille. Robinson had his own opinion on its accuracy: “On the whole I prefer Buck Rodgers.”[16]

Robinson could have written to Colmcille directly but, for reasons known only to himself, did not. Perhaps he found the prospect too distasteful. Instead of this obvious route, Robinson instead had all three letters mailed together to Abbot Benignus Hickey of Mellifont Abbey in Co. Louth.

New-Mellifont1-e1437176115668
Cistercian monastery, Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth

The first letter was addressed to Abbot Hickey, asking him to pass on the second letter to Seán Fitzpatrick, then a resident of the Abbey, it would seem. It was an impressively long letter, and Fitzpatrick was treated to no less than two postscripts. The third letter was ostensibly addressed to W. F. O’Connell, secretary of the Soloheadbeg Memorial, with the intent of turning down a recent invitation but which was, at Robinson’s request to Hickey, to be passed on to Colmcille who was either another resident of the Abbey or in contact with its abbot.

As told to Abbot Hickey, the two letters to Fitzpatrick and O’Connell were intended to address the points in Colmcille’s upcoming publication. A good Catholic, Robinson made sure to stress that his rebuttals were intended for “Father Colmcille, the Tiperaryman-Historian – not the priest, God bless him,” and ending the letter to Hickey with a request that the Abbot pray for him.[17]

‘A Locker-Room of Deadly Shots’

That Colmcille was being singled out as an historian and not for anything else about him must have been scant comfort when reading remarks like: “I cannot make up my mind whether Father C. is simple (the virtue); or is a simpleton (within strict limits,” or threats of “a locker-room of deadly shots that I will discharge at his book.”[18] One can only speculate as to whether such remarks were intended to browbeat Colmcille into submission or if Robinson could not resist the chance to vent.

This triple-pack of letters prompted a mollifying response from Colmcille, who wrote with the wariness of a man moving slowly around a strange dog. Colmcille began by stressing that the typescript Robinson had read via Fitzpatrick had been a rough draft and not intended in any way to be publishable, a fact that Fitzpatrick was amiss for not making clear to Robinson. One could assume that this would be the last time Colmcille would ask Fitzpatrick for any editing favours.

The second defence was to deny any contact with Breen as a source, and minimise his use of Breen’s book for his own beyond a few quotes. Colmcille ended his letter with an invitation to forward his typescript to Robinson for any amendments he would want to make. If Robinson sent a reply, he did not include it in his BMH Statement, so we do not know what he made of Colmcille’s olive branch.

Motives?

Three other letters in the appendix were written by Kincaid to the Irish/Sunday Press, all refused publication. The reason given by the above Mr Feehan for refusing one of her letters was “pressures of space” and indeed the letter in question was a fairly long one, as were the letters in general.[19]

As all these letters to newspapers were rejected, it begs the question as to why either Robinson or Kincaid did not simply write shorter letters if they were so keen for Robinson’s version of events to be heard. It could be that the letters were never intended to be published. After all, that would have brought the ill feeling to public light, which would have been awkward given how the two men were both members of the same party in Fianna Fáil – Breen as a TD, Robinson as a trusted bureaucrat. Instead, it could be that Robinson passively-aggressively sabotaged his own efforts by intentionally making the letters too long for any editor to realistically consider printing them.

As for why write them at all, Joe Ambrose has suggested that even with the letters rejected, “the whole of Dublin would hear about their contents”, in a sort of guerrilla war by rumour. However, there is no indication that knowledge of the letters’ contents went beyond the offices of the Irish Press, let alone that that was Robinson’s intention.[20]

ambroseEqually questionable is Ambrose’s suggestion as to why Robinson added these letters to the appendix of his BMH Statement: “The result was a time bomb from another era, recently exploded, that was designed to wipe out Breen’s reputation and the credibility of his book.”[21]

As Robinson never hinted at any plan as long-term as that, or any plan at all, it is impossible to say for sure. An argument against this is how the BMH Statements were only to be made available upon the death of their last contributor, Robinson included, which was not to be until 2003, forty-two years after Robinson’s death in 1961.

A plan of vengeance whose culmination the perpetrator could not be around to enjoy could hardly be a satisfying one. But for a man with a lot to say, Robinson could be stubbornly opaque as to what he hoped to achieve. All a historian can do is shrug and apply a question-mark over his motives.

Books Make the Man

On a similar note, it is a mystery as to why Robinson, if he was so aggrieved at Breen’s use of memoir-writing to inflate his role, did not respond in kind and write his own? Robinson adopted a puzzled, almost irritated reaction to that sort of question:

Quite a large number of people have been asking me from time to time, mostly importunately, during the last thirty odd years to write my memoirs. Why, I don’t know.[22]

He mentioned in a letter his “manuscript notes for, perhaps, a book – certainly a statement,” indicating that he was at least entertaining the idea of a memoir.[23] The way the Statement was divided into chapters, with a prologue, separate chapters, and an appendix, further suggests that it was intended to be the makings of a publishable book.

Robinson had previously contributed an earlier Statement, in 1948, this one limited to specific themes in his revolutionary career:

  • His family, early years and Volunteer activities in Glasgow up to 1916.
  • A list of names of those in the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ of the Easter Rising.
  • His role in the Rising as part of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’.
  • A 1932 Evening Telegraph article on the Lord French Ambush, written by the then-Senator Robinson.[24]

This one was composed in 1948, nine years before Robinson wrote his main one in 1957. It is the shorter of the two, at 26 pages including newspaper clippings, while the material in the 1957 one totals 142.

Through the difference in the two Statements, one can see the writer’s progression from the short pieces in the first to a more complete narrative and arguments that make up the second. Also notable is how Breen is barely mentioned in the first, in contrast to the spleen displayed against him in the second. Presumably Robinson lacked the self-assurance to do his cause justice initially.

By the time he composed his second Statement, he had grown in confidence as a writer and in the certainty of himself as a wronged man. Robinson seemed to be building himself up to write something greater, perhaps a magnum opus of his life’s work and vindication?

But, ultimately, Robinson went no further. He never provided a book nor an answer as to why other than indifference on his own part, when of course Robinson was anything but indifferent. He clearly had the ability, time and passion to write a memoir of his own, and there was certainly a demand for stories from the War of Independence which Breen, O’Malley and others were happy to supply, but for whatever reason Robinson never followed suit.

Conclusion

The BMH Statement of Séumas Robinson is one of the most colourful to have emerged from the vaults of the Bureau of Military History. The reader is struck by the vitriol displayed by Robinson towards his colleague, Dan Breen, an indignation that formed around a number of claims Breen had made through his memoir: Breen had been Brigade O/C, he had been present at the assaults on a couple of RIC barracks, and he had exaggerated the extent of his injuries. Breen was enabled in his deception, or so Robinson believed, by the people of Tipperary who preferred to celebrate one of their own at the expense of the Belfast-born Robinson.

And so Robinson embarked on an underground literary career, assisted by his sister-in-law, in writing letters of complaint about Breen’s deceptions to an assortment of newspaper editors, historians and abbots. Why he did not pursue the same aims through more productive methods such as shorter letters or publishing his own memoirs is a mystery, as are his motives in general for his extensive, but ultimately futile, letter-writing campaign.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (08/12/2014)

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

References

[1] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 3

[2] Ibid, p. 5

[3] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 95

[4] Ibid, p. 100

[5] Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), p. 178

[6] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid, pp. 121-122

[8] Robinson, Séumas, Military Service Pensions Acts 1949 (Accessed 29/11/2014)

[9] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 100

[10] Ibid, p. 119

[11] Ibid, pp. 86, 125, 128-129

[12] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 19

[13] O’Dwyer, Patrick H. (BMH / WS 1432), p. 6

[14] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 107-110 (Hollyford), pp. 112-118 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp.  189-195 (Hollyford), pp.200-203 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), pp. 21-41 (Hollyford), pp. 42-60 (Drangan)

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 118. In case one wonders what the ‘usual concomitant’ of this is, it is ‘S.R.-opobia’.

[16] Ibid, p. 127

[17] Ibid, p. 117

[18] Ibid, p. 118, 119

[19] Ibid,  p. 99

[20] Ambrose, p. 178

[21] Ibid

[22] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 3

[23] Ibid, p. 101

[24] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 156)

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 156

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Books

Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006)

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

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

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

Military Service Pensions Acts 1949

Robinson, Séumas (Accessed 29/11/2014)

Advertisements

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

The Savonarola

Of the voices raised against the Treaty during the Dáil debates in January 1922, few were more strident than that of Séumas Robinson. He came with impeccable credentials, both political and military, being the TD for East Tipperary-Waterford as well as the O/C to the 3rd Tipperary Brigade.

Not that Robinson was above opening his address with a joke:

In my own plain, direct, if not too lucid way, I would like to fire a few shots at the Treaty – metaphorically speaking.

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The Republic was at stake, Robinson continued, and if the reputations of certain people would have to be ruined for its sake, then so be it. The people whose reputations he had in mind were doubtlessly the plenipotentiaries who had returned from London with the hated Treaty in hand – two of whom would feel the edge of Robinson’s tongue before he was done.

To Robinson, this despicable compromise was no recent thing. It had had its conception three years ago when the Irish Volunteers had been denied a general convention and thus the chance to have a proper say in matters. The compromise had continued into its embryonic form when the Volunteers had come under the authority of the Dublin GHQ, further neutering them of their independence.

The proto-compromise had passed into its chrysalis form (with Robinson mixing his birthing metaphors here) when GHQ began paying a wage to its soldiers – distasteful enough for the puritanical Robinson – without providing any appreciable military assistance to go with it, an oversight which he was not about to forgive.

The end result of these machinations was the Treaty under discussion. Like all compromises, Robinson concluded, it was like a mule in that it was barren. For all his keenness to portray himself as a bluff, no-nonsense man of action, Robinson could not resist the occasional rhetorical flourish.

The Martinet

In contrast to the gombeen ways of GHQ were the high-minded principles of the Volunteers, men for whom ideals and symbols were worthwhile things in themselves, whatever anyone else thought. As far as Robinson was concerned, they had been refused a voice for too long. So that the assembled deputies would be in no doubt as to where the Volunteers stood on the matter of the Treaty, Robinson read out a letter he had received that day.

It was from a number of IRA officers, first denying the rumours that they were favourable to the Treaty and, secondly, reaffirming their allegiance to the Republic, which in the context of the debate could only mean a stand against the Treaty. The names of the signatories were given, along with – ominously enough – the units within the IRA that they commanded: Liam Lynch of the 1st Southern Division, Ernie O’Malley of the 2nd Southern Division, Oscar Traynor of the Dublin Brigade, and Michael McCormack of the 3rd Southern Division.

If Robinson had been hoping for a stir amongst his audience, he succeeded. Richard Hayes TD retorted that the letter did not speak for his constituency of East Limerick and he doubted that it spoke for the other Divisional Commandants either. Even Éamon de Valera, no proponent for the Treaty, felt obliged to step in to say that it was scarcely right for any officer to be using the name of the army like that.

Somewhat mollified, Robinson admitted that reading out such a letter may have seemed a thoughtless thing to do. But he was not prepared to back down on this point, not even against the Chief:

De Valera: I would ask that the army be allowed to keep its discipline.

Robinson: The army has always been regarded as the army pure and simple. I submit that it is not so. If we had no political outlook we would not be soldiers at all.

De Valera: I know that they are citizen-soldiers. The point is that bringing them up as Brigades is not wise.

Robinson: I think the Volunteers have been very badly treated. The Volunteers demand a veto on the change of our country’s constitution. We are not a national army in the ordinary sense; we are not a machine pure and simple; we have political views as soldiers. For the purpose of this veto I here demand a general convention of the Volunteers.[1]

Robinson’s speech was remembered admiringly for years afterwards by his fellow Anti-Treatyites, even those who did not normally give him the benefit of the doubt. Dan Breen broke his usual policy of never saying anything complimentary about his former O/C when he described how Robinson had “very properly reminded” the Dáil about the right of the IRA to hold political views.[2]

Todd Andrews did not think too much of the famous Soloheadbeg ambush that helped make Robinson’s name, downplaying it as “an operation that just went wrong.” However, one of the few positive impressions he took away from watching the Dáil debates was Robinson’s speech which cheered him and “totally expressed my feeling.”[3]

The Accuser

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

As if the threat of military subordination was not fiery enough, Robinson laid into the two men he held responsible for the deplorable state of affairs: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the mother and the father of the Treaty respectively as Robinson dubbed them. What followed was pithily summed up by the Freeman’s Journal as a “personal attack on Mr. Collins, belittling the latter’s part in the War.”[4]

This was not an ad hominem attack for the sake of it. Robinson quoted an earlier speaker, Patrick MacCartan, on how he had said he could understand support for the Treaty on the basis that “what is good enough for Michael Collins is good enough for me.” Arthur Griffith has gone as far as to describe his fellow plenipotentiary as “the man who had won the war.”

If the Treaty was to be argued for on the basis of one man’s personal qualities, then it was only fair to stand against it on that same basis and, to Robinson, the Collins he had been hearing so much about had nothing in common with the Collins who had signed the Treaty. The former was a fictional construct, the other a weak and unworthy man who had done nothing to warrant the laurels heaped on him.

Kevin O’Higgins felt obliged to speak out: “Are we discussing Michael Collins or the Treaty?”

“Or are we impeaching him?” said another deputy, meaning Collins. Even if the question was meant rhetorically, Robinson was happy to take it up, pointing out that the plenipotentiaries were already in the dock in a manner of speaking. It was a trial in which Robinson was determined to act as prosecutor even if the Speaker of the Dáil, Eoin MacNeill, questioned the relevance: “I think it is as near not discussing the Treaty as possible.”

Undeterred, Robinson delivered what he hoped would be his coup de grâce to the opposing faction: that the plenipotentiaries appeared to be guilty of nothing less than treason. Before pressing on, Robinson assured his listeners that he would confine his arguments to the facts …before proceeding with a speculation on the motives of the opposing signatories to the Treaty: Arthur Griffith and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

The Hardliner

griffith
Arthur Griffith

Both leaders, so Robinson argued, had come to the conclusion that they could not overcome the other in negotiations. So that they could both bring a result of sorts to their respective cabinets, Griffith and Lloyd George agreed between them to give Ireland Dominion status, or Dominion Home Rule as Robinson termed it, the reference to the former, now discredited, attempt at self-rule being no accident.

The talks in London, along with the Prime Minister’s talk of a “terrible and immediate war” if they fell through, were thus all playacting on the part of Griffith and Lloyd George, with Collins as an enabler, for the benefit of the gullible.

Robinson finished his hypothesis with the suggestion that Griffith and Collins were open to the charge of treason: “No doubt,” he said:

They will give a satisfactory explanation of their efforts; and I would be more than delighted to withdraw any imputation that my words may unjustly convey. I think they should thank me for saying openly what is in the minds of many.

That Collins or Griffith would be thanking Robinson was as unlikely as him withdrawing his imputations any time soon, delightedly or otherwise.

His piece done, Robinson sat down and relinquished the floor. It went to the next speaker and then the next, as it would continue to do so for a very long time that day and the following one before the final vote.[5]

Amidst the heated atmosphere of the debates, Robinson’s vitriol was not unique. Cathal Brugha’s own personal attack on Collins was enough, some thought, to lose the anti-Treaty cause key votes. His speech did, however, mark Robinson as one of the hardliners. When the Dáil voted at 64-57 in favour of the Treaty, his name was down unsurprisingly as one of the ‘no’ votes.[6]

The Renegade

Robinson’s opposition to the Treaty was in no small part the complaint of a put-upon groundling against his aloof and feckless superiors. But then, Robinson had already displayed a contentious attitude towards authority.

Sometime after the Truce had come into effect, he had discussed with a number of others the possibility of obtaining weapons from Germany in anticipation of renewed hostilities. During these talks, Robinson had outlined his sense of the military situation facing him: the Crown forces had largely withdrawn to their barracks and while this limited their options, it also made them near untouchable.

Robinson had hoped that the German mission could result in the IRA acquiring the necessary equipment to breach fortifications such as trench mortars. Robinson warned the others not to inform anyone of their plans as they were going over the heads of GHQ. Their superiors in Dublin, Robinson was sure, were not sufficiently active in procuring weapons, particularly for the county divisions such as Robinson’s.

The visit to Germany was to prove a failure and none of the hoped-for armaments were brought over. That Robinson had not trusted his commanders to the point of keeping them in the dark did not bode well for future relations.[7]

The Usurper

Another act of independence, this time against a different sort of authority, had been Robinson’s selection as the Sinn Féin candidate for East Tipperary-Waterford in the 1921 elections. Not that he cared particularly. As he was to make clear in the Dáil, he considered himself a soldier first and foremost. In his later Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Robinson made only a passing reference to how “the Volunteers asked me to stand for election.”[8]

Robinson went on to win the seat, although not entirely unopposed. Sinn Féin party headquarters had had another candidate in mind and were only told about the change in plans a few days before the election. Sinn Féin demanded a full explanation but, judging by how the subject did not feature again in the party minutes, never received one.

It was, in any case, a fait accompli. Central authority had been unable, according to historian Michael Laffan, to “influence the decisions of locally dominant Volunteers.” It had been unable to deter Robinson, either.[9]

The Logician

Robinson had arrived in Dublin on the eve of the Dáil debates in time to meet up with a few other IRA leaders who would go on to join him against the Treaty: Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows.

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

With GHQ identified as the problem, Robinson and O’Malley agreed with O’Connor’s suggestion of breaking away from their central command as soon as the Dáil debates were over, none of them having much hope in how the talks would go. The more cautious Mellows counselled them to wait and see how the situation developed and it was on that circumspect note that the band broke up for the night.

Of the group, O’Malley knew Robinson the best, having fought alongside him on a couple of occasions during the War of Independence. He was to leave a vivid depiction of Robinson on the night before the debates:

Seamus was dogged. His hair was tousled. He held his clenched fist underneath his underlip. Somehow he had sensed that one day something would go wrong…Seamus had too much of the French kind of inquiring, critical logic.[10]

O’Malley had witnessed a display of Robinson’s ‘French’ logic before, when the latter had objected to the IRA oath pledging allegiance to the Dáil. Robinson had been concerned that the Dáil might in the future settle for something short of a republic, a worry O’Malley had brushed off with a laugh. Somehow, Robinson was to refrain from a ‘told you so’.[11]

The Dreamer

The day after the Dáil approved the Treaty as feared, Robinson joined Mellows and some others for a gloomy little gathering. As one of the attendees, Robert Briscoe, later described the scene:

We were as despairing as only ardent young men can be; for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost and life had no more meaning. “What next? What next?” we asked each other and ourselves.

As none of them felt like remaining in Ireland to watch their country become re-enslaved, it was suggested they go abroad and find some other place in which to continue the fight against Perfidious Albion.

Robinson proposed India. There, they could pass on their experiences of guerrilla warfare which, when allied with the country’s vast population, would give these aspiring Wild Geese a chance to strike a substitute blow for freedom.

His suggestion provoked an outburst of genuine enthusiasm; so volatile are we Irish that it takes but a spark of courage to rekindle hope. However, it went no further because developments at home took another shape.

Despite Briscoe’s assurances to his reader that the ardour for such a farfetched scheme was sincere, it is unlikely that it was entirely serious or the whole session was anything more than an outlet to vent frustration.[12]

The Comrade

Robinson was to enjoy during this period a camaraderie with several leading figures in Ireland’s left-wing scene, such as Mellows and Roddy Connolly. The son of the Easter Rising martyr, Connolly had been one of those Robinson sent to Germany to procure weapons, as part of which he used his connections with the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) to obtain forged passports.[13]

james_connolly_swf
James Connolly

As a sign of how small the revolutionary social circles could be, Connolly’s sister, Ina, had known Robinson’s brother, Joseph, from their families’ time in Belfast. The family patriarch, James Connolly, would remember Séumas when they met during the Easter Rising, a wounded Connolly cheerfully calling out: “Help, Towney!” to the younger man as a reference to their common association with Belfast and Glasgow. Robinson would describe James with affection as a “man’s man in every fibre of his body and mind.”[14]

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Robinson and Roddy Connolly bonded but politics as well as shared history connected them. Connolly would refer to Robinson in a 1922 article as someone who “describes himself as a ‘Social Republican.’”[15]

Another association was Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), who met Robinson as part of a delegation from the Volunteers sometime between the Easter Rising and 1918. The subject of discussion was the possibility of greater cooperation between the ICA and the Volunteers. Although nothing came of these talks, Robbins remembered them as having been open and frank, and he felt he knew Robinson very well by the time of the Treaty.[16]

The Social Republican

mellows
Liam Mellows

Robbins gave no indication as to Robinson’s political orientation and Connolly did not elaborate on the label of ‘Social Republican’. More telling is a conversation Robbins had with Mellows in April 1922 during the latter’s occupation of the Four Courts. The two were discussing the merits of the Treaty – Robbins was for it – when Mellows asked as an aside: “Did you hear of all the soviets Seamus has established down in Tipperary?”

Robbins did not press for details, seeing it as an attempt by Mellows to change the subject. For his part, Mellows was uninformed as there is nothing to suggest that the wave of short-lived co-ops set up over the south of Ireland were anything other than local initiatives. Based as he was in Dublin at this time, Robinson would have been poorly placed to provide any input to these budding soviets even if there had been a central authority behind them. All the same, it was noteworthy that Mellows thought of Robinson as enough of a fellow traveller to be a plausible instigator of a social revolution.[17]

By the time Robinson spoke for himself in his 1957 BMH Statement, he preferred to muse on the inherent superiority of Catholic theology, the self-evident truth that Catholicism is the only infallible guide against the nihilistic horrors of atheism and how religious education was insufficiently taught in schools. Whatever youthful experimentation he had had with radical politics was left unspoken.[18]

The Subordinate

Close as he was to Mellows, O’Malley and Connolly, Robinson could not bridge the gap between him and the man whose opinion was to matter most amongst the Anti-Treatyites.

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Robinson first met Liam Lynch in October 1920 to discuss the problem of British patrols raiding into Co. Cork from their base in Cahir. As Cahir was in Robinson’s territory, Lynch informed the other O/C that stopping the enemy raids was his responsibility. Robinson replied that the same British unit had been also entering his brigade’s territory until a few months ago, unwisely adding: “They must be finding it less ungenial to raid Cork.”

Robinson was to insist that he had meant it as good-natured banter of the sort that he regularly exchanged with other IRA members. The attempt at humour, however, fell flat with Lynch. It was not an auspicious start to the relationship.

Eight months later, Robinson became frustrated at the occupation of the Four Courts, believing it foolhardy to keep the Anti-Treaty leadership cooped up like so many eggs in a basket. After a blazing row with Mellows and Rory O’Connor, Robinson left the Courts on the night of 27th June and departed from Dublin by train the next morning, just in time to escape the Free State attack that same day.

Bombarded_Four_Courts_Irish_Civil_War
The Free State attack on the Four Courts, June 1923

While sharing a train with Lynch and a number of other officers, Robinson argued intensely against the foolishness, as he saw it, of their policy for each IRA unit to fight on their own territory. As with the Four Courts occupation, this was far too passive for Robinson’s liking. Instead, he wanted the Anti-Treatyites to march in strength on Dublin and cut out the Free State cancer before it spread. The only man with the power to order this, however, was their cautious Chief of Staff, Lynch, who refused to hear of it.

The Strategist

Robinson continued to press his case. He told of how it had felt during the Easter Rising when Dublin stood alone and unaided. As if this was not plaintive enough, Robinson bore the responsibility of having promised the Dublin Brigade that he would return with his Tipperary men as soon he could. Lynch held firm, believing Dublin to be too dangerous.

As a compromise, Robinson suggested sending a hundred forerunners from his own brigade to the city to establish contact with the other IRA units there. If Lynch was shown how easy it could be done, then Robinson hoped the Chief of Staff would change his mind. Lynch agreed to the hundred-strong advance guard, and their success in reaching Dublin and the subsequent fighting there gave Robinson fresh hope. As late as December 1922, Robinson believed, the Anti-Treatyites had a chance at victory if they concentrated on Dublin.

free-state-troops-fire-on-the-four-courts3
Free State soldiers during the fighting in Dublin

But the lack of further aid from outside demoralised the Dublin IRA who refused to commit themselves to anything risky while they remained unsupported. Seeing the fight in the city become a dead-end, the Tipperary men withdrew. “For the second time in six years,” Robinson wrote mournfully, “Dublin was let down at a critical moment by the rest of the country.”[19]

The Ignored

Whether the Civil War would have been much different had Lynch followed Robinson’s proactive advice is debatable. It is unlikely, though, that it would have gone worse for the Anti-Treatyites. Not for the first time had Robinson failed to persuade when it would have been in the best interests of those involved to be persuaded.

Thomas Ryan, an officer in Robinson’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade, had noted how his O/C, despite his obvious intelligence, lacked the forceful character necessary to maintain authority over the Brigade’s flying columns formed during the War of Independence. Robinson was consequently regarded by the column-men as a purely nominal commander with no real input to offer.

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column

This was to prove detrimental for all concerned. Perhaps, as Ryan was to wonder, if Robinson had been able to assert himself, “we might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.”[20]

The same might have been said by the Anti-Treatyites in regards to the crucial opening months of the Civil War. It is perhaps darkly fitting that a man who had scorned the directives of his superiors for so long be repaid in kind.

The Man of Many Things

Passionately against the Treaty and his GHQ overseers in equal measure, Séumas Robinson gave one of the more forceful speeches in the Dáil debates. It called for the Volunteers to play a role in the unfolding politics to the extent that even a natural ally like Éamon de Valera distanced himself from it. Not content with that, Robinson went on to accuse two signatories of the Treaty, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, of nothing short of treason.

Robinson had already displayed an independent nature. An attempt to purchase weapons was made behind the backs of his commanding officers. In the 1921 elections he replaced one of candidates – whether on his own initiative or on the request of the local Volunteers – with the Sinn Féin central office receiving only a cursory notice. With such a rebellious streak, it is perhaps unsurprising that he bonded with a number of left-wing figures, although it is unclear as to what extent he shared their politics.

To the fore of the Anti-Treatyites in the build-up to the Civil War, Robinson was nonetheless marginalised when the conflict actually happened. His advice for a more aggressive policy was disregarded by Liam Lynch in what may have cost the Anti-Treatyites a chance at victory. Robinson was many things but he was not to be a winner.

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

[1] 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, pp. 288-92. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), p. 19

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 119, 223

[4] Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

[5] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92

[6] Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 39

[7] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), pp. 5-6

[8] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 77

[9] SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269 ; Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 337

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-2

[11] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 183

[12] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958), p. 141

[13] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[14] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919) p. 75 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1722), p. 7

[15] Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation), p. 51

[16] Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 203, 229

[17] Ibid, p. 232 ; a distinctly unsympathetic Dan Breen provided a brief first-hand account of the soviets in Tipperary in his BMH Statement (WS 1763), pp. 39-40

[18] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 7-17. Of limited use to an historian but it gives a good sense of the man’s style.

[19] Ibid, pp. 78-80, p. 102

[20] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783), pp. 116-7

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958)

Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation)

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

Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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

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

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

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Sean, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1722

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

Other Source

SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269

 

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

The Third Man

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The Third Tipperary Brigade was among the most prominent in the Irish War of Independence. Ernie O’Malley accredited it with having created the fighting spirit of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the first place, to the point of other units preferring to fight it out to the bitter end if surrounded rather than a prudent withdrawal in order to live up to the martial idea of the Third Tipperary Brigade. Séumas Robinson was one of the three men O’Malley attributed with creating that bold if troublesome tradition, the others being Dan Breen and Seán Treacy.[1]

All three became legends in their own lifetimes. Breen’s memoir guaranteed his fame to new generations. Judging by its re-prints, it remains in popular demand as well as much-thumbed by historians. Treacy did not survive the War but the memory of his exploits earned him the attention of writers looking for an Achilles to their Homer.

In contrast, Robinson has been treated as the middle child of the three by historians. Worth a few page numbers in an index, maybe, but not much more than that, with little desire to better understand the part that he played.

Robinson’s role in the Third Tipperary Brigade was a difficult one, and one not easily appreciated by onlookers. As Brigade O/C, he was a middle-manager in the IRA: responsible for the behaviour of his subordinates who did not always respect him, while answerable to his superiors who, in the words of O’Malley, “admired but…did not like him.”[2]

It is to explore these complicated, sometimes contradictory, feelings inspired by this complex, driven man that this article aims to do.

First Impressions

The Third Tipperary Brigade was formed in October 1918, with Robinson elected as Brigade O/C, Treacy as Vice Commandant, and Breen as Quartermaster. According to Breen in his memoir, Robinson’s promotion had been decided for him beforehand by himself and Treacy.

A rising star in the Volunteers, Treacy had been asked by Michael Collins to take the post of full-time Volunteer Organiser for Tipperary. However, Treacy was unsure as to whether he could commit to both that and the role of O/C. He was also concerned that neither he nor Breen had the social standing or the finances.

They were about to request that GHQ send them someone more suitable to take over, when they heard of a recent arrival to Tipperary who had been a participant in the Easter Rising, and who was currently working as a farmhand at the house of Eamon O’Dwyer, another organiser for the Tipperary Volunteers.

Sean_Treacy_circa_1919
Seán Treacy

Upon meeting Robinson at O’Dwyer’s farmhouse, Treacy and Breen decided that he would be sufficient for the part. As Robinson was a newcomer to Tipperary and dependant on his farmhand work for money, he was a strange choice if social standing and finances were so important.

A few days later, Breen and Treacy met Robinson again at O’Dwyer’s and asked him if he would agree to take the post. Robinson heard them out while busy milking. When he was done with that, instead of staying to talk, Robinson took the milk-pall and left, saying only over his shoulder that he would be prepared to do whatever they asked of him but he had to get back to his job. Robinson was later elected as O/C on Breen’s proposal which Treacy seconded. The man of the hour was absent as Robinson was serving out a sentence in Belfast jail.[3]

Robinson could hardly have been thrilled to read of himself as a bumptious drone who had accepted a figurehead O/C post that he had otherwise been indifferent to. In his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Breen went further in describing Robinson’s intended part to have been that of a ‘stooge’ or ‘yes-man.’[4]

Robinson-Treaty-Breen-Brennan
Left to Right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Michael Brennan

Stooge?

Breen’s version is supported in part by that of another Brigade member, Thomas Ryan, who also attributed Robinson’s rise to the prestige of his 1916 record and to the behind-the-scenes prompting of Treacy. While Robinson held the title, Ryan was in no doubt that it was Treacy who held the power. While not present at the election, Ryan suspected that it had been Treacy who had suggested Robinson in the first place.[5]

This belief is corroborated by someone who did attend the election: Edmond McGrath. According to McGrath, Treacy turned down offers of the command in favour of Robinson, whose praises Treacy sang to all concerned. Other than giving Treacy, not Breen, the leading role in pushing for Robinson, McGrath’s account tallies with Breen’s.

breen.jpg
Dan Breen

However, Breen did wildly exaggerate Robinson’s status as an outsider. Though McGrath did not know Robinson personally at the time of the election, he was already aware of the considerable time Robinson had spent in organising the Volunteers. Michael Davern went as far as attributing the considerable growth of the Brigade to Robinson’s energy.[6]

Treacy’s desire for another man at the O/C helm can be explained by a need to delegate his workload, a task he would not have entrusted to someone he thought incapable of it. By the time of mid-1920, the two had become, in the opinion of Ernie O’Malley, an “ideal combination” (not least in finding ways to tease O’Malley).[7]

In underestimating Robinson’s qualifications and experience, Breen was being either catty or woefully uninformed.

Eamon O’Dwyer

A native of Belfast, Robinson had grown up in Glasgow and had joined the branch of the Irish Volunteers there. In 1916, he was told to report to Dublin for the upcoming Easter Rising. Despite its failure and his consequential imprisonment, his participation and the contacts he made in jail were to stand him in good stead in the years to come.

Post-prison, Robinson moved to Tipperary to help organise the Volunteers there. As far as he was concerned, the only place for him now was Ireland. Returning to Belfast, however, did not seem to have been of interest to him. Besides, he had already made a contact in Tipperary through a prison acquaintance: Eamon O’Dwyer.[8]

O’Dwyer was by then a veteran activist in South Tipperary, having been involved in a daisy-chain of nationalist societies such as the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, and the Gaelic League. A quiet, behind-the-scenes player, O’Dwyer was content to work among the grassroots to ensure the continuation of his beloved movement.[9]

This work included talent-spotting Robinson for the Brigade. The two of them had shared many discussions in Reading Jail on what they would do when free. O’Dwyer had aired his dream of creating a community centre for Irish nationalism. Robinson loved the idea, and readily accepted the offer to come and help out.[10]

Robinson arrived at O’Dwyer’s newly acquired house in Kilshenane, Co. Tipperary, on January 1917, in the midst of a snowstorm.[11] If Robinson was going to be staying in Ireland for the upcoming fight, he might as well go to where he was wanted.

Honesty, Hustle and Zeal

The priority of the Volunteers in the years after the Rising was the acquisition of weapons, largely by robbery. As part of this, Robinson and O’Dwyer led a break-in at the house of a British army major who lived locally, where they were confronted by an irate major and his female secretary. A firm believer in civilian property rights, Robinson offered to let the secretary show them around the house while searching for weapons to ensure that nothing else was taken.[12]

Robinson earned his keep at Kilshenane House as a farmhand. A city slicker, he made up for his lack of rural know-how with “honesty, hustle and zeal.”[13] It was fortunate that he had these virtues in abundance, for his work often left something to be desired. The resulting ribbing over one disastrous attempt to tackle up a donkey lasted long after Robinson was made Brigade O/C, which he took in good humour.[14]

Robinson also spent time back in prison for his involvement in the Volunteers. These periods of detention at His Majesty’s pleasure may have been inconvenient, but they did give his peers the chance to see his implacable character up close. At Stafford Gaol, he was remembered as a “small, little man of steel with the russet stubble and the shy, retiring manner” who, within days, became known to staff and inmates for his courteous but firm refusal to sign any of the prison paperwork put before him.[15]

If some of his colleagues would find him irritating in the years to come, for now it was enough that he annoyed the enemy.

Soloheadbeg

On 21 January, 1919, Robinson, Treacy and Breen were part of a team that ambushed a cart of gelignite on its way to Soloheadbeg quarry. Escorting the cart were two officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and in the resulting confrontation, both were shot dead.

Not everyone in the revolutionary movement was overly impressed with the deed. Breen bitterly recalled the cold-shouldering from otherwise ardent republicans he and the others received in the aftermath.[16] Nonetheless, the ambush has been established as the official start of the War of Independence. Much has been written about the ambush; its importance here is how its two main participants, Breen and Robinson, both took the opportunity in their later accounts to belittle the other.

In Breen’s memoir, the details of the ambush were worked out between him and Treacy, with what Robinson might have thought being unimportant.[17] Breen went further in his BMH Statement in saying that Robinson had not been consulted at all about the ambush plans, and that neither he nor Treacy had told Robinson about their agreed plan to shoot the policemen whatever happened. This was not because of distrust, but because they did not think it was any of his business to know – an extraordinary thing to say about the Brigade O/C. Robinson did not join the rest of the party in their stakeout of the prepared ambush site until a couple of days before the ambush took place, meaning he could have missed it entirely had the gelignite escort came earlier, and he was so far removed from the action that he did not learn that the RIC officers had been killed until he almost back home.[18]

In Robinson’s account, needless to say, he was heavily involved in the ambush, in its planning and the execution. In this, Robinson is supported by other accounts. Michael Davern, later acting O/C of the Brigade, remembered seeing Robinson ten days before the ambush “elated with obviously suppressed excitement” at what promised to be the first Brigade operation. Anxious for its success and for people he could trust, Robinson invited Davern to join. Davern pleaded off but was able to mobilise four others instead. Like Treacy, Robinson was not adverse at delegating.[19]

One of these four, Patrick O’Dwyer, described who Breen and Treacy emerged from hiding to challenge the RIC escort to halt, with himself and Robinson grabbing at the reins of the cart-horse, before the officers attempted to open fire and were fatally shot instead, neatly matching Robinson’s record of the event. According to O’Dwyer, one of the policemen had been aiming his carbine at either him or Robinson before he was shot, making it clear that Robinson was risking his life as much as anyone.[20] Breen’s portrayal of Robinson as a mere tag-along must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Robinson was not much more complimentary towards Breen. The party was lying in wait for the escort when Breen became agitated and impatient to rush out as soon as he could, prompting Robinson to make a mental note “that that man should never be put in charge of a fight.”[21]

Michael Collins

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

Both Robinson and Breen would insist later that the Soloheadbeg ambush had not been intended to be a simple robbery, but to provoke the public mood into war. If so, they got their wish. The ambush, along with the dramatic rescue of their captured colleague Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station, made the situation in South Tipperary too tense for Robinson, Treacy and Breen. Together, they left to take refuge in Dublin. Whatever Robinson thought of Breen and vice versa, they were to be stuck with each other for a while.

In Dublin, Robinson was to make the acquaintance of Michael Collins. It was not to be a harmonious working relationship. What aggrieved Robinson most was the failure of the first planned assault on Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Collins assigned Robinson and Treacy to the last street corner before Dublin Castle on the route Lord French was to take from Dún Laoghaire. Should Lord French have survived the assassination attempts set up along the way, Robinson and Treacy were to ensure that the job was finally done.

After waiting until the latest estimated time Lord French was supposed to come, Robinson and Treacy saw instead Collins and a number of other senior officers walking towards them. Collins laughingly told the pair that Lord French was not coming after all. As far as Robinson was concerned, Collins had set up a dummy attack in the presence of other Volunteer leaders in order to give the impression of himself as the one leading the fight in the field.[23]

Robinson returned to Tipperary, refusing to join in any of the other attempts on Lord French’s life. The relationship with Breen also worsened. To Breen’s dismay, Robinson was no longer as amenable as before, to the extent of him issuing countermanding orders to those Treacy and Breen had already given to the Brigade. If Robinson had been intended to be a puppet, then he was becoming one determined to pull his own strings.[23]

It took both Treacy and Breen to persuade him to return to Dublin for what turned out to be the one assassination attempt that was followed through. Lord French survived, the only fatality being that of one of the attackers, Martin Savage, whose death affected Robinson deeply at the time, telling the news to others in a “broken voice.”[24]

Martin_savage
Martin Savage

Robinson’s impression of Collins as self-serving at others’ expense stayed with him. Three years later, Robinson was denouncing Collins during the Treaty debates in the Dáil as someone who had taken no risks but had urged others to do so.[25]

The dislike was reciprocated. Shortly after his signing of the Treaty, Collins ruefully joked to Eamon O’Dwyer that bringing Robinson to Tipperary had been O’Dwyer’s worse mistake.[26]

Ernie O’Malley

Another GHQ mover-and-shaker whose acquaintance Robinson met was Ernie O’Malley. Robinson and Treacy first met him in Tipperary town, May 1920, at an officers’ class O’Malley was running; he was on one of his periodic trips across the country to better organise the various brigades. This time it was the turn of South Tipperary, which was the scene of a strong British military presence; Robinson and Treacy had had to fight their way through an enemy patrol on route to Tipperary town.[27]

O’Malley’s and Robinson’s memories of each other were generally respectful. The working relationship was comfortable enough for O’Malley to wish that Robinson had been made Commander of the First Southern Division instead of Liam Lynch.[28] For Robinson, O’Malley was a welcome change from the usual armchair generals who made up GHQ.[29]

omalley
Ernie O’Malley

The two men had much in common. Both had literary tastes and aspirations, though it was only O’Malley who went the extra step and became known as a writer. Both were well-travelled throughout Ireland. Both were thinkers and organisers but unafraid to risk their lives in a fight. Both were serious-minded, hard-working revolutionaries, but who could be considered aloof and uninspiring by their subordinates.

Both ended up taking the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, an event Robinson had inadvertently predicted when discussing the newfangled IRA oath of allegiance with O’Malley and Treacy. Robinson had disapproved of the oath in how in it transferred authority from the army to Dáil, which might in the future accept something less than a republic. O’Malley and Treacy had laughed at the absurdity. Three years later, the Civil War would break out on that very issue. Robinson might have struck O’Malley as a bit of an Eeyore but, in this case, he had been a Cassandra.[30]

The Man Who Was Not There?

Together, Robinson, O’Malley and Treacy helped spearhead a series of coordinated attacks by the Third Tipperary Brigade on RIC barracks in South Tipperary. Not all of these were successful but they showed the ability of the Brigade to carry out sustained operations, a discipline nurtured by Robinson and Treacy, and a testament to their combined leadership.

Two of these assaults, on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks, are particularly noteworthy. Breen claimed in his memoir to have participated in them both. Robinson was to repeatedly insist in his BMH Statement that Breen had not even been present and had lied in writing that he had in order to inflate his reputation.[31]

hollyford
Hollyford RIC Barracks, Co. Tipperary

A possible tie-breaker in this controversy is Ernie O’Malley, who helped lead the attacks on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks. O’Malley wrote accounts of his own, first in his 1936 memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, and later a series of articles in the mid-1950s that were published under Raids and Rallies.

In O’Malley’s accounts of the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, Breen does not appear in either. Had such a well-known figure like Breen been present at either Hollyford or Drangan, it would have been strange for O’Malley to have not made a mention of it, like he did of Breen’s presence at the assault on the Rearcross barracks, which Robinson did not deny.[32]

Thus we must tentatively conclude that Breen did lie about having been present at the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, and that Robinson was entirely correct in this.

Lepidus?

The extent in which Robinson held authority in his position as Brigade O/C was questioned by contemporaries. One such was Thomas Ryan, a witness to much that went on in the Brigade and a member of the second of the two Flying Columns which had been formed in late 1920.

What Ryan had to say about Robinson’s leadership after the founding of the Columns is worth quoting at length:

From the time the Columns began operations, Robinson remained in and about the Brigade Headquarters…taking no active part in the work of the Columns, and so was not regarded by the men of the Columns as having any effective control of them…From this, it may be seen that we looked upon Robinson’s position as Brigade Commander as purely nominal.[33]

This passage has been cited as proof that, as a leader, Robinson was aloof and uninvolved. However, Ryan was talking from the perspective of someone who was part of a very particular type of fighting unit, and his comments should be taken to reflect the changing nature of the IRA as the War progressed rather than Robinson’s leadership as a whole.

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column, South Tipperary

There was still much to do for the rest of the Brigade, over which Robinson continued to act as a hands-on O/C. In February 1921, Robinson was present with an ambush party alongside a railway embankment to catch a troop train. When the train did not arrive, Robinson gave a lecture before the men dispersed on the need for more activity for the War.[34]

During the Truce, in the expectation that the ceasefire would be temporary, Robinson funded an (ultimately failed) attempt to purchase from Germany the type of weapons, like trench mortars, that would help crack the nut that had been frustrating the IRA: British army garrisons.[35] Whatever the Columns thought of him, there was still a war to be fought, and he intended to continue doing his part.

Roads Not Taken

However, it does seem that Robinson struggled with maintaining the respect of his subordinates. Even Michael Davern, who was close enough to Robinson to introduce himself as Robinson’s right-hand man, had no compunction about talking back to him in a row over sloppy watchmen whom Davern had been responsible for.[36]

Another close colleague who did not automatically defer to Robinson was Eamon O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer’s discontent with the turn the revolution had taken was made embarrassingly public after the death of Seán Treacy in a shoot-out in Dublin in October 1920. Found on Treacy’s body was a letter by O’Dwyer complaining about the IRA use of ambushes, which quickly became grist for the British propaganda mill. Asked by Robinson to investigate O’Dwyer as a possible malcontent, Robinson stood by his friend, reporting O’Dwyer back as a man of integrity.[37]

It was a generous act of loyalty on Robinson’s part, for O’Dwyer had also been actively undermining the war effort that was Robinson’s responsibility to maintain. O’Dwyer had been receiving calls from the families of Volunteers who were participating in the ambushes that had become the IRA tactic of choice, pleading for O’Dwyer to withdraw their men out of harm’s way. Concerned as to how much longer the War could be maintained anyway, O’Dwyer increasingly acceded to their wishes, and recalled fighting men back to their homes. When Robinson came to his house for an explanation, an angry and weary O’Dwyer refused to budge on the issue.[38]

Humane as O’Dwyer’s actions may have been, he was making Robinson’s job a harder one, with Robinson lacking the iron to discipline or dismiss his friend. It was a weakness in Robinson’s nature that Thomas Ryan noted and regretted. For all his disregard of Robinson as a leader, Ryan still respected him for his intelligence. Had the men in the Columns taken Robinson’s advice more often, and had Robinson made more of an effort to bond with them, then “they might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.” But the fault in why they did not was due, in Ryan’s opinion, to Robinson not possessing a “more forceful character.”[39]

An example of one of these roads-not-taken was the choice of Seán Hogan as a Column Commander. Robinson had wanted Ryan in the role instead, and tried to persuade Ryan to put himself forward, but Ryan, content that Hogan would be suited for the role, refused. When Hogan proved to lack the necessary aggression to properly lead a Column, Robinson’s misgivings came back to haunt Ryan.[40]

As with the IRA oath of allegiance and its future repercussions, it was a case of Robinson understanding a situation better than anyone else but lacking the ability to lead people who did not already want to be led.

Maintaining Discipline

The raids and rallies that have dominated the public perception of the War were only a facet in a wider picture. There was the intelligence war, with Volunteers urged to be on constant watch for informants. Robinson supervised the execution by shooting of an unmasked spy. This was a relatively straightforward case of an enemy agent tricked into blowing his own cover.[41]

Less obvious was the request made to Robinson by a Mid-Tipperary officer for permission to drive out a local family, the Hunts, so that their land could be divided up between Volunteers. As an afterthought, it was argued that, as a Protestant, Mrs de Vere Hunt, was too much of a potential spy. Robinson was not one to fall for such clumsy sectarian posturing, and instead gave orders that the Hunts were not to be troubled. Some months later, Mrs Hunt would prove the rumours entirely wrong by passing on information to the Volunteers from British officers who had dined at her house.[42]

thurles
Thurles, Co. Tipperary

About midsummer of 1920, Robinson felt the need to issue a request to his Brigade members (an order would have been too hard to enforce) that anyone caught inside a house where civilians were living should wait until outside before shooting. To Robinson’s dismay, many of his men “thought that the civilian population was at best a secondary consideration.” In response to this disturbingly blasé attitude, Robinson did his best to prevent the worst from happening.[43]

His concern for civilians in the crossfire caused him to veto a proposal to raze five houses of “wellknown Unionists” in retaliation to the blowing up of houses by Crown forces in May 1921. Robinson’s stated reason was a refusal to stoop to enemy level. That people uninvolved in the War might have suffered may have also been a reason for Robinson’s reticence. After all, terms such as ‘Unionist’ were used rather liberally by Volunteers, often to indicate anyone who was a convenient target.[44]

Cattle-Raids and Rallies

Respect for civilian rights and property did not extend to the ‘IRA levy’ which was carried out on local farmers. Michael Davern was involved in the seizing of cattle belonging to ‘Unionists’ who had failed to pay the “very small” amounts demanded. Any money obtained in this process was intended to go into Brigade funds.[45] However, not every Volunteer was above exploiting this revolutionary racket for personal gain, a human failing that Robinson was not naïve about.

Near the end of July 1921, a court-martial was arranged for several Volunteers caught cattle-rustling. Robinson presided over the improvised court which found the defendants guilty. As for sentencing, the death penalty was suggested, though Robinson was persuaded against this on the basis that it might undermine Brigade morale. Instead, the considerably less severe punishment of supervised unpaid work was issued.[46]

As law and order collapsed throughout Ireland, the IRA brigades found themselves in the position of the authorities they had been fighting against. Brigade commanders were obligated to fill the vacuum they had helped create. Robinson took this new role of improvised policeman as seriously as he had taken that of local warlord, determined to curb the excesses of his subordinates. However badly the civilian populace of South Tipperary suffered from the War of Independence, it may have been much worse without the standards set by Robinson.

Conclusion

Séumas Robinson was elected O/C for the Third Tipperary Brigade, partly on the urging of Séan Treacy, but also on the basis of his participation in the Easter Rising and his considerable activism for the South Tipperary Volunteers. From there, he set about helping to create one of the more prominent brigades in the War of Independence.

A complex man, capable of the extremes of warm camaraderie and unreasoning hatred, Robinson worked with many of the leading figures in the revolution: with Michael Collins he had nothing but undisguised contempt for, Ernie O’Mally a respectful working relationship, Seán Treacy a fruitful partnership, and Eamon O’Dwyer unqualified loyalty even when O’Dwyer undermined him.

Robinson expected much from his subordinates, and did his best to rein in their baser desires, while sometimes struggling to elicit respect from them. A renowned brigade, a determination to fight for what he saw as a just cause and a respected civilian populace were the hallmarks of this proud, principled and often prickly man.

 

First posted on The Irish Story (17/05/2014)

 

See also:

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

[1] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 432

[2] O’Malley, p. 183

[3] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), pp. 21-2, 30

[4] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 21

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 116

[6] McGrath, Edmond (BMH / WS 1393), p. 6 ; Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 10

[7] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 180

[8] Robinson (BMH / WS 1721), p. 67

[9] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 54-55

[10] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1403), pp. 62-3

[11] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 3-4

[12] Ibid, p. 25

[13] Ibid, p. 4

[14] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 7

[15] Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996), p. 190

[16] Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, p. 40

[17] Ibid, p. 31-32

[18] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), pp. 21-23

[19] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 15

[20] O’Dwyer, Patrick H. (BMH / WS 1432), p. 11 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 28-29

[21] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 28

[22] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[23] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 26

[24] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 82

[25] Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers,P7a/209(2), p. 85

[26] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), p. 95

[27] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 179

[28] Ibid, p. 432

[29] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p.39

[30] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp. 182-3

[31] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 87 as an example

[32] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 107-110 (Hollyford), pp. 112-118 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp.  189-195 (Hollyford), pp. 200-203 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), pp. 21-41 (Hollyford), pp. 42-60 (Drangan)

[33] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  pp. 116-117

[34] Keane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1300), pp. 5-6

[35] Beaumont, Seán (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[36] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), pp. 33, 45

[37] Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), pp. 116-7

[38] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 83-4

[39] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 117

[40] Ibid, p. 32, 79-80

[41] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 114-5

[42] Ibid, pp. 35-36

[43] Ibid, p. 57

[44] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 58

[45] Ibid

[46] Keating, James (BMH / WS 1220), pp. 13-15

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Seán, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1739

Davern, Michael, WS 1348

Keane, Patrick, WS 1300

Keating, James, WS 1220

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGrath, Edmond, WS 1393

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1403

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Books

Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006)

Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996)

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

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

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

Other Material

Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209(2)