A Cavan Field That is Forever Belfast: The Last Stand of an Ill-Fated Flying Column, May 1921

Showdown at Lappanduff

Proof that there was nowhere in Ireland entirely safe from the ongoing guerrilla war was abruptly demonstrated when the inhabitants of Lappanduff, in the parish of Drung, were awoken from their sleep in the early hours of the 8th May 1921 by the sound of gunfire. Lappanduff was not normally a townland that could expect much in the way of excitement or even attention; even more remote was the farm of Mr John Brady, set on a mountainous piece of land that lay on the parish border and a mile away from the nearest road. In the corner of this farm was a slated, two-storey house, formerly tenanted by a labourer, when Mr Brady still actively farmed, but unoccupied as of late – that is, except for the group of young men who had taken up residence a few days before.

Cavan mountain

Not much was known about them, at least not by the Anglo-Celt, except – “from the meagre details available” – the men were strangers to the area, mostly hailing from Belfast, with two from Knockbridge parish, Co. Louth, and their ages ranged from nineteen to twenty-one years. One was dead by the time the newspaper went to print, and most of the rest captives, as their presence had not gone unnoticed by the authorities, who had sent lorryloads of Crown police and British soldiers to the farm.

When shots rang out:

The troops immediately took cover behind the rocks on the highland above, and some of the occupants of the house, it is stated, rushed from their beds and took up positions behind broken-down walls which adjoin the building. Daylight was just breaking, and as the battle developed the crack-crack of rifles resounding through the valleys were heard for miles round.

For two hours this firefight raged, so the Anglo-Celt estimated, until the farm occupants – or ‘civilians’ as the newspaper somewhat erroneously termed them – surrendered. By then, one had been wounded in the arm, along with a soldier, neither seriously; the sole fatality being identified as John McCartney from the Falls Road, Belfast. Upon examination of the farmhouse, an arsenal of respectable size and variety was discovered inside: Mills grenades, bombs, service rifles, pistols, ammunition and gelignite fuses, as well as the beds, food and clothing necessary for an extended stay. Clearly these were no mere ‘civilians’ and had come for more than just a visit.

For the most part, the Anglo-Celt had been discreet in its coverage. The facts were reported, with little speculation beyond. The only hint at why the supposed ‘civilians’ had been there in the first place was the inscription on the coffin plate for the deceased: John McCartney, Sectional Commandant, IRA.[1]

McCartney, p. 55
John McCartney (from his Military Service Pensions application, 1D65, p. 55)

‘In Great Dread’

Not all the Volunteers from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been killed or captured at Lappanduff. “One account states that the leader escaped,” read the Anglo-Celt, “whilst another is that five of the party succeeded in getting away.” The truth of the former report was confirmed two days later, on the 10th May, when Joe McGee wrote to the rest of the Belfast IRA Brigade to report. McGee wisely refrained from signing his name, only as “O.C., Flying Column’, and revealing his location as “enemy under the impression I am wounded and are searching Cootehill district for me.”

McGee had arrived at Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan, on the 3rd May, only five days before the disaster, along with six others from Belfast. The organiser from the IRA GHQ – nameless in the report, presumably also for security purposes – guided them to a safe-house until the rest of the flying column-to-be joined them. From Ballyhaise, the men went to Bunce to pick up the weapons stored for them, and then to Lappanduff, reaching it on the 5th May. Initial impressions were not encouraging: the column had to be distributed to nearby friendly houses as the one intended for their sole use was not ready.

Also disappointing was the absence of the local Volunteers who were supposed to appear later that evening with more equipment. The base at least was finished, the work in doing so taking up most of the Belfast men’s time. They had enough light left for two hours of parading and practising with signalling and taking cover, before retiring for the night on the 7th May.

An example of an IRA Flying Column

Sentries, of course, were posted and these awoke the rest at 4:50 am. British troops had been spotted lurking in another house close by, prompting the column to divide into three groups, one in the centre and the other two on either flank, each facing the threat. Rather than on McGee’s command, “this was done by the men themselves,” and though standing to fight would prove a grave mistake, “I believe they were under the impression they had only a small party to deal with.”

In fact, the Crown force numbered about three hundred and fifty, complete with ten lorries, so McGee later learned, against the seventeen men at Lappanduff. Also, it turned out that the enemy party first sighted had only been a decoy while the rest converged on the Irishmen’s hillside position from different angles. Compounding their woes was the breakdown in communication between their three sub-columns, each focused on its own separate struggle. McGee gave no indication in his report that he considered himself to be in any way responsible, despite his rank as O/C: “From the start no discipline was maintained.”

At first, the Volunteers held their own, one attempt by the enemy “to storm position on the right” being beaten and “forced to retire with I believe ten casualties” – this being a much more impressive (and suspect) tally than the one reported in the newspapers. All the same, the weight of numbers proved too much and when one of the three bands, consisting of four men, surrendered, the remaining pair were compelled “to break up and retire as best possible,” as McGee put it, though their best would prove not enough to save the column:

The entire parties were moving in different directions and were picked up by parties of enemy forces. I and two others managed to escape with our arms. As far as I can gather four of the column including myself are still free.

McGee finished his report with: “Awaiting further instructions from you,” although he could not have been under any illusion of accomplishing much from now on. Besides, “local Volunteers very very slow and do not seem to grasp anything at all,” he complained to Belfast. Nobody in the area had given the column any warning of the enemy’s approach, despite the lorries passing by their homes. This negligence might be explained by the hostages the British had rounded up in one of the vehicles – or it could be that the slow-witted Cavan IRA members McGee had encountered so far “are just typical of this sleepy place, and seem to hold enemy forces in great dread.”[2]

A Peculiar Position

McGee was venting his frustration but even Cavan Volunteers could be aware that there was something amiss in their branch of the IRA. “The position in Cavan was a peculiar one,” admitted Hugh Maguire, an officer in the IRA brigade there, blaming the central leadership in Dublin for the disarray:

I am at a loss to understand why our GHQ did not take some steps to put the organisation there on a better footing. There were eight or nine battalions in the county area. This was too big and too scattered an organisation to be controlled as one brigade and should have been organised into two brigades at least.

Instead, the Cavan IRA became a sprawling, unwieldy mess:

We could hardly have said to have a water-tight brigade organisation at any time, and when the original brigade organisation lapsed each battalion was an independent battalion coming directly under GHQ, Dublin, and for such a number of them in one county this was a pretty hopeless position.”[3]

Which is not to say the brigade was incapable of action, such as the burning of Crosskeys police barracks, as per orders from GHQ, at Easter 1920 after its garrison had evacuated. Raids for arms were also conducted across the county near the end of the year, and though the work was simple – usually just by asking the owner for their firearm – the results were paltry: five or six shotguns and a few revolvers. Funds were raised via a house to house collection, which Maguire, as Brigade Quartermaster, and another officer took to Dublin in order to purchase more weapons from GHQ.

A burnt-out RIC barracks

“I understand that a consignment of some sorts was sent to us via Longford with a supply for that area,” Maguire was to recall, “but that the Longford Volunteers kept the whole lot for themselves…we never got any arms and our money was never returned to us either.” The central leadership seemed to hold scant expectation in general for Cavan, as a conversation Maguire had with Michael Collins and Gearóid O’Sullivan in Dublin would indicate:

Collins asked us what we were doing in the area and we told him we had no arms and that all we could do was trench roads and cut communications and generally disrupt British government measures. He told us to continue this sort of work.[4]

Success was had instead in the poaching of policing duties from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). By then the Dáil courts were up and running, as a counter to the British ones, and these required the arrest of suspects and their guarding during detention. All of this “threw a great strain on the Volunteers,” according to Maguire – the feeding of detainees alone was a constant headache – but, as a plus, “the people developed a sense of confidence in the Volunteers when they realised they were quite capable of maintaining law and order in the country.”[5]

Those expecting the sort of daring deeds and dramatic exploits popularised by the likes of Tom Barry, Dan Breen and Ernie O’Malley will be disappointed, but then they were always exceptional. In its low-key approach to the guerrilla war – to the point of being sedate – and focus on mundane, but essential, groundwork, Cavan was more representative of the country during the War of Independence than bigger, flashier places like Cork and Dublin.

Webley revolver, commonly used in the Irish War of Independence

Which is not to say the Cavan IRA entirely gave up on its ambitions for something bigger. Plans were laid to attack Ballyjamesduff RIC Barracks in December 1920; as with much else in Cavan during this period, bad fortune thwarted the attempt when the six riflemen who were intended to spearhead the assault failed to materialise on the night, forcing the rest of the Volunteers to cancel. Even as late as 1956, when Maguire was composing his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, the reasons for this absence remained uncertain. One theory was that the six men had been injured in an accident, though Maguire believed, less charitably, that only three had bothered to show at their meeting-spot and then decided to go no further. And a third version is from Seán Sheridan, in his own BMH Statement, in which it was the guide intended to lead the six to the barracks who stood them up.[6]

The Facts(?) of the Case

Trying to make sense of the Lappanduff debacle is likewise complicated by its conflicting accounts; in each, the issue of blame was one that could be skirted around or laid on someone else but, either way, never fully ignored.

Crown policemen on a Crossly tender, a lorry commonly used by British forces in Ireland

Writing a day after McGee’s report to Belfast, on the 11th May, Séamus McGoran, in his role as IRA organiser for Cavan, attempted to explain to his Chief of Staff in Dublin exactly what happened. McGoran did not say whether he had talked to McGee beforehand or read the latter’s report; nonetheless, it is probably not a coincidence that McGoran at the start exculpated the people near Lappanduff from the charge of negligence: the British had, prior to their attack, commandeered every house nearby to prevent their presence from being leaked to the column. Furthermore, the Cavan IRA had dug trenches across the roads leading to Lappanduff Mountain in order stymie any British lorries, only for the foe to conscript local labour to fill them up again.

“Our men fought splendidly under difficulties, but the mistake made was that they took up positions to fight a small force,” McGoran wrote, echoing (knowingly or not) what McGee had stated about the fatal mistake the column made. Thus the enemy were able to outflank the small band of Belfast men. A consolation, of sorts, was the price the British paid for their victory:

The enemy lost heavily. Their casualties are ten at the least, that is taken from an eye-witness who watched them carrying them away and he was in a position to see them all. We have had that verified from another source who saw them being brought into Cavan town.

At least, this is according to McGoran, his count of the Crown losses being quite higher – and suspiciously more impressive – than the sole injury reported in the press. Another silver lining in the cloud was psychological:

Though a material defeat I look upon the fight as a moral success. It had had a good effect on Cavan and I think will awaken the men to a sense of their duty. From that point of view I consider the introduction of the column justified.[7]

Richard Mulcahy

But the IRA Chief of Staff remained unmollified by the ‘glass half full’ arguments from McGoran. “While this must not magnify our defeats, or let them depress us, or let them weaken our will to see the present struggle through to the very end,” wrote Richard Mulcahy thirteen days later, on the 24th May, “there is nothing to be gained by shutting our eyes to actual facts.” And facts were what Mulcahy was lacking: “Your own report is very unsatisfactory and it really gives me no details to go on, as to what the actual state of affairs in the neighbourhood was.”

A fuller report was thus ordered from McGoran, with particular attention to be given to two points:

  1. The arrangements made for the security of the column on the night of the 7th May, just prior to the engagement.
  2. Any orders the column had had from its O/C about its disposition and what to do in the event of a surprise attack.

That the column had been evidently been found wanting on what to do, coupled with how the enemy had been able to advance so close to its position without detection, revealed to the Chief of Staff “a most appalling lack of training or neglige [sic – rest of word cut off from the page] which, in view of the fact that it involves the lives of men and the morale of the county generally, is criminal.”[8]

A Sense of Duty

McGoran must have taken this stern reprimand to heart, for he submitted a fuller report on the 6th May, addressing both of Mulcahy’s demands for further information:

  1. Security arrangements for the column: McGoran had given standing orders for roads leading to Lappanduff to be trenched and, if refilled, for them to be dug again. Upon hearing that the roads had indeed been filled by the British, McGoran assumed his orders would be adhered to and saw no need for further instructions. As they were not, the routes to Lappanduff were essentially left wide open.
  2. About any orders given by the Column O/C in the event of a surprise attack: McGee had left no such instructions as he was waiting for the unit to become at full strength with the seven Cavan Volunteers due to join the thirteen Belfast men waiting at Lappanduff.

On the second point, McGoran conceded that he “would be responsible” as it was his role to organise the local aid to the column, “but I didn’t consider the absence of seven men would make a difference regarding his plans for a surprise attack” – thirteen could surely retreat as easily as twenty, McGoran had assumed. Another misjudgement McGoran took on himself was how he “didn’t expect that the presence of the column in the area would be detected so soon. I considered the neighbourhood safe enough.”[9]

IRA members in a field

McGoran also hastened to clarify to his Chief of Staff that he:

…didn’t mean to convey the idea that a defeat in itself had a good effect in Cavan but the fact that men from another part of the country had to be brought in to make a fight for them would surely waken them to a sense of their duty if they desired their county to take its rightful place in the fight for Ireland’s freedom.

In this, McGoran needed every bit of help he could find, given that there was:

…an idea still abroad among the men and people of Cavan that when they had first won East Cavan for a political party [the Sinn Féin by-election victory in June 1918] they had accomplished all that they should be asked of them for some time and it’s taking very hard work to get that idea cleared away.[10]

Amending this complacency had been why the Belfast column was brought over in the first place. Wanting to raise a local column, McGoran had applied for arms from both Dublin and Belfast; once again, the latter was less than interested in handing over valuable resources to a dead-end county, while the former only agreed on condition that Belfast men came over with Belfast arms.

Lee Enfield rifles, highly prized weapons by the IRA

Exactly why is unclear; after all, the Belfast IRA had more than enough fighting of its own to do, and columns operating in areas not their own was highly unorthodox, given the need to be familiar with their surroundings. Historian Jim McDermott (whose great-uncle was part of the column) offers the suggestion that the Belfast Volunteers hoped to gain experience in the use of rifles in an area that seemed, on the surface, safer than their own. Whatever the reason, McGoran was apparently less than happy at these terms but, seeing no better option, agreed, with a condition of his own: as soon as further weapons were gained, probably by looting from successful attacks and ambushes, the Belfast men would be phased out of the column and replaced with Cavan ones.[11]

‘A Very Bad Setback’

McGoran’s hopes for Cavan to stand on its own two feet would go unfulfilled, brigade morale by the time of the Truce in July 1921 being not “very robust” in Sheridan’s opinion. Instead of inspiring the Cavan IRA, “the Lappanduff affair was a very bad setback to the morale of the force.” Sheridan had his own idea for why the column had been caught, it being a simple matter of geography:

The position selected for the camp was a very bad one, to my mind. It was on top of a hill which stood up like a pimple on the surrounding countryside. The sides of the hill were rough and provided good cover for an encircling force.

Human error also played its poisonous part:

It is said that one of the column left the camp in the early morning of the 9th with a tin can to fetch water from a well or stream and that the morning sun glinting on this can as he swung it around his head, telegraphed or signalled to the enemy forces that the place was occupied.

However, Sheridan also believed that the Belfast men had been without scouts or sentries which, now known from the newspaper reports and internal IRA memoranda, was not the case. Notably, he blamed, as well as the man with the tin can, the column for having “no liaison with the local Volunteers who would have been able to warn them of the enemy’s approach” – for all the difference that would have made, to go by McGoran’s report of the locals being detained and prevented from passing on any alarm.[12]

Cavan countryside

Sheridan was perhaps a little too quick to foist the blame on the outsiders and, besides, he had not been present at Lappanduff at the time. As one of the column, Seamus McKenna had. Interestingly, the tin can’s owner makes an appearance in his own version of events. While Sheridan portrays the unnamed individual in question as at least part of the reason why the column was discovered, he and his tin can, according to McKenna, were only noticed at the last minute, after the column sentries on Lappanduff had begun perceiving through the morning gloom the shadowy figures nearby:

At the time, one of our men, who had just gone off duty, came out with a can to draw water from a spring, about fifty yards from the house. It was getting somewhat brighter and, as this man saw the strangers, he whistled to them and waved his water can. Immediately a shot rang out, followed by another, and numerous figures were then seen moving around the foot of the hill.

“I raised the alarm,” wrote McKenna, who was with the watchmen at the time, “but most of our party had heard the shooting and were awakened.” McGee delegated responsibility for getting the Volunteers out of their billet and into position to McKenna, after which the column O/C would resume command. McKenna duly did so: “I saw that everyone was out of the house and ordered the men into firing position on the hillside.”[13]

The fight was on.

IRA members

A Few Observations

By the time McKenna composed his BMH Statement, written more than three decades later, in 1954, he had clearly given that day at Lappanduff much thought. “There a few observations I wish to make,” he wrote:

  • Their presence had clearly been betrayed to the British.
  • Such information must not have reached the enemy barracks until late in the previous day, as the RIC and Tans who fought and arrested them had the sloppily-dressed appearance of men just roused out of bed.
  • The choice of area was a bad one, being both familiar to the authorities and containing inhabitants hostile to the IRA.
  • While McKenna respected McGoran as a conscientious officer, the Cavan organiser had been amiss for not taking proper precautions such as posting scouts by the roads to Lappanduff.
  • No attempts had been made in the meantime to identify the informer who McKenna believed had given away the column; if anything, the Cavan officers McKenna talked to about it preferred the idea that it was a Belfast man responsible.[14]

Needless to say, regarding the last point, McKenna found that suggestion rather insulting; nonetheless, he did concede that certain column members had not been as tight-lipped or as security-conscious as they should have been. The day before the disaster, on the 7th May, McGee gave leave to three of his subordinates to visit a nearby pub. After some hours, the trio returned, mildly tipsy and, while otherwise none the worse for wear, McKenna had to wonder if the damage had already been done:

Being Saturday evening, there must have been quite a number of local men passing in and out of the pub during the three hours or more than the men spent there. The appearance and speech of the three identified them as city men and, even if there had been no indiscreet talk, the very presence of the men must have caused surprise, even to friendly disposed people. Two of the men…however, were anything but discreet and I have no doubt that their tongues wagged.

“I wonder who heard them that night!” McKenna added ruefully.[15]

Tom Fox, the Cavan IRA Quartermaster who was captured with the column, identified the culprit as “a local Protestant farmer” – the nearby Protestants in general being “completely hostile” in his unvarnished view (another reason, if so, why Lappanduff had been an unwise selection). Later that month in May, Patrick Briody was taken from his home in Mullahoran and riddled with bullets. ‘Spies and Informers, beware – IRA’ read the note left by the 60-year-old shoemaker’s body.IRA spy sign

Historian Jim McDermott speculates that this may have been revenge for the column but – other than the considerable distance between Mullahoran and Lappanduff – neither Maguire nor Sheridan drew that connection when discussing Briody’s murder in their BMH Statements. If loose lips had indeed doomed the column, whether through carelessness or malice, then the deed went unavenged, in contrast to the usual bloody IRA purges post-defeat (such as the six civilians shot dead in the wake of the Clonmult ambush, Co Cork, in February 1921).[16]

But the biggest reason why the Belfast column failed might have lain inside or, more specifically, at its head. McKenna’s decision to wave a white handkerchief and surrender may have been understandable, outnumbered, outgunned and outmanoeuvred as he and the other Volunteers were, but that did not make it any less galling. Rubbing salt into the wound was when the English captain in charge held up a Sam Browne belt and told McKenna, with heavy sarcasm: “It’s a pity your C/O did not wait for the scrap.”[17]

An example of a Sam Browne belt (a leather belt with a supporting strap over the shoulder)

On Cavan’s Mountain

McKenna had last seen that particular item being strapped around the waist of his O/C as McGee stood in the doorway of their billet, readying himself while McKenna, as instructed, roused the rest of the Volunteers into their positions. Fighting on the mountainside was complicated by cover: good in some areas, too exposed for others, and as a result the men, already forced to spread out, drifted apart into separate pockets. Even so, the column was able to give a good account of itself, keeping up a steady enough pace of fire to hold the enemy at bay.

Had the Irishmen taken the chance, they could have crawled away and escaped, ready to fight another day but, as it was, McKenna kept waiting for McGee to reassert his authority as promised. When that did not happen, McKenna resorted to calling for McGee by his first name:

The echoes of my voice and of the shots were the only answer to my calling. I continued this calling, at intervals, for about an hour, I am sure, and my voice was heard all over the hillside. In fact, the enemy heard it and questioned us afterwards about it. Magee [sic] must have heard it before he cleared off – as he apparently did.

That the tell-tale Sam Browne belt was found five hundred yards away from the scene of battle confirmed to McKenna that his commanding officer was a coward as well as incompetent (although, of course, this is just one man’s opinion on another, and so must be treated with a certain caution). McKenna was transported with the rest to Cavan Military Barracks, then to his native Belfast, where he was housed in Crumlin Road Gaol. Due to the injuries of one of the other column members, their court-martial was delayed sufficiently until the Truce of July 1921 brought the War of Independence to a tentative pause.[18]

However ignominious the defeat, the prisoners could at least count surviving as among their blessings. John McCartney, of course, had not been so lucky. When the engagement started, McGee had dispatched him and a second man, McDermott, to the base of the mountain in case more soldiers advanced from there. The sun had almost risen in full when McKenna saw the pair racing back uphill in the direction of their comrades. The firing from the British intensified, and one of the two collapsed. His partner hesitated for a moment to look back at the other man before continuing his run, helpless to do anything else. It was not until the battle was over that the body could be retrieved, and death confirmed, and for McKenna to learn that it was McCartney and not McDermott who had fallen.[19]

Memorial to John / Seán McCartney in Belfast

It had not been McCartney’s first time in battle, having received an injury before, in the right hand – though the occasion then had been in France, as part of the British Army. Perhaps because of this former comradeship, or maybe due to the grit displayed by the column as a whole, the British garrison in Cavan Barracks treated the deceased with respect, saluting his hearse with rifle-fire as it left for the station. A second such gesture was made as McCartney’s father and brother, who had come to Cavan with a coffin, lifted their sorry load on board the next train back to Belfast. Following the cortége through the streets, passing closed businesses and drawn shutters, was a large crowd of civilians, along with the military escort, many of whom knelt on the railway platform as women from Cumann na mBan recited the rosary in Irish.[20]

McCartney’s name lived on, as cold comfort it may have been to his family. The author Brendan Behan was sitting in a pub on the Falls Road, Belfast, when he heard the song Belfast Graves for the first time. Among the more familiar names of Wolfe Tone and Joe McKelvey were a few other, less famous martyrs, including:

On Cavan’s mountain, Lappanduff,

Fought one with bravery,

Until the English soldiers killed,

Brave Seán McCartney.[21]

More on the song ‘Belfast Graves’ from ‘The Treason and Felony’ blog: https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/story-of-a-song-belfast-graves/


[1] Anglo-Celt, 14/05/1921

[2] Ibid ; University College Dublin (UCD), Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 111-2

[3] Maguire, Hugh (BMH / WS 1387), pp. 20-1

[4] Ibid, pp. 11-12, 15-6

[5] Ibid, pp. 10-1

[6] Ibid, WS 1388, pp. 3-4 ; Sheridan, Seán (BMH / WS 1613), pp. 13-4

[7] UCD, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 108-10

[8] Ibid, pp. 113-4

[9] Ibid, P/A/19, p. 51-4

[10] Ibid, p. 55

[11] Fox, Thomas (BMH / WS 365), pp. 9-10 ; McDermott, Jim. Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001), p. 81

[12] Sheridan, pp. 17-8

[13] McKenna, Seamus (BMH / WS 1016), p. 21

[14] Ibid, pp. 34-6

[15] Ibid, p. 20

[16] Fox, pp. 10, 12 ; McDermott, p. 82 ; see Anglo-Celt, 28/05/1921 for contemporary information about Briody’s death ; Maguire, p. 20 ; Sheridan, p. 18

[17] McKenna, pp. 25, 27

[18] Ibid, pp. 21-3, 28-9

[19] Ibid, pp. 21-2, 28

[20] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘McCartney, John’ (1D65), p. 71 ; Anglo-Celt, 14/05/1921

[21] McDermott, p. 81





McDermott, Jim. Northern Divisions: The Old IRA and the Belfast Pogroms, 1920-22 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001)

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Bureau of Military History Statements

Fox, Tom, WS 365

Maguire, Hugh, WS 1387

Maguire, Hugh, WS 1388

McKenna, Seamus, WS 1016

Sheridan, Seán, WS 1613

Military Service Pensions Collection

McCartney, John, 1D65

Before the Blue: Eoin O’Duffy and his Military Career in the Irish Revolution, 1920-2

A Model Everything

Eoin O’Duffy in a Free State uniform, 1922

With a year having passed since the end of the Civil War, Frank Aiken and Mary MacSwiney decided it was time to take stock of the national situation. After all, the former was Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the latter its Director of Publicity, putting much of the burden of reviving the defeated Republican cause on their shoulders. In an exchange of letters in April 1924, the future career prospects of an erstwhile comrade, now enemy, was examined: Eoin O’Duffy, who, MacSwiney believed, would make a more popular candidate for the Free State leadership than the other two likely contenders, Richard Mulcahy and Joe McGrath.

Besides O’Duffy’s current position as Commissioner for the Civic Guards and the evident success he was making of it:

I have heard it said that he is playing a very deep game; that he is idolised by his men; that he is considered a model Catholic and a model everything that he touches.

Despite the twinge of reluctant admiration in her description, MacSwiney assured Aiken that she was not swallowing any of it: “I believe he is extremely unscrupulous and personally I have rather grave doubts about the correctness of his Catholic ideas.”

As proof, MacSwiney told of a conversation she had had with O’Duffy in December 1921, in the vestibule of the National College, Dublin. Dáil Éireann was about to open for the debate on that most controversial of subjects: whether or not to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. MacSwiney had already made it quite clear where she stood at an earlier, private session, that the agreement in question was nothing less than a grievous betrayal, and a spiritual one at that, of the Irish Republic.

National Concert Hall, Dublin (formerly the site of the National University and the venue for the Treaty debates, Dec. 1921 -Jan. 1922

Strong words, indeed, enough to bring O’Duffy – a supporter of the Treaty – to tears and, when he stood to speak next after MacSwiney, he openly wished he could have died before hearing such a thing. This made an impact of its own on onlookers, several of whom remonstrated to MacSwiney afterwards about her reducing a fine fellow like O’Duffy to his piteous state. In an attempt to keep their differences purely political, without straying into the personal, MacSwiney agreed to the one-on-one at the National College.

Mary MacSwiney

At the start of their talk, O’Duffy impressed her as “very straightforward, very frank and in earnest.” His earlier distress, he explained, had been less what had been said and more who had said it, given the respect he had for her martyred brother, Terence MacSwiney. “Now here comes the extraordinary part of it,” she told Aiken – O’Duffy claimed that while Terence was dying on his prison hunger-strike in late 1920, one of O’Duffy’s subordinates in the Monaghan IRA Brigade expressed the view that Terence’s fatal self-denial amounted to the mortal sin of suicide.

This was apparently too much for O’Duffy:

He assured me [MacSwiney] that he had taken that man out, had given him half an hour and had him shot as a traitor. This he said he told me to show me how much he reverenced Terry.

Much to O’Duffy’s surprise and consternation, MacSwiney was horrified at this, although she now had her doubts that any such thing occurred and wanted Aiken’s opinion; after all, the story, if true, might prove useful should O’Duffy take on a more public role in the Free State. When he wrote back in reply, Aiken was emphatic: “O’Duffy told you a lie.” There was indeed a Volunteer in the Monaghan IRA executed on O’Duffy’s orders but for an entirely different reason: the wretch had spilled secrets when arrested by British forces and consequentially, so Aiken heard, actually asked to be shot.[1]

‘A Stickler for Discipline’

Aiken did not name the deceased. Otherwise, he must have been quite well-informed about an area not his own (Aiken commanded the Newry IRA) as the details he provided MacSwiney with match those in other accounts of Patrick Larmer’s fate. James Sullivan had met Larmer – spelt ‘Larmour’ in Sullivan’s account – after the latter returned home to Rockcorry from Belfast Jail in April 1921. Larmer confessed to Sullivan and the other IRA officers present that, yes, he had talked to the authorities while imprisoned but about nothing not already known. This was evidently not good enough, for Larmer was arrested shortly afterwards for court-martial.

Guessing its likely verdict, Sullivan tried pleading for clemency but his Brigade O/C was implacable: “O’Duffy said it would be an example and a warning to others.”[2]

Ernest Blythe

Perhaps Sullivan should have not expected allowances made for extenuating circumstances; O’Duffy was, after all, “a stickler for discipline,” according to James McElduff. For some like Ernest Blythe, that was part of O’Duffy’s appeal, his reputation as a “strict, thoroughgoing, enterprising man” being what earned him his appointment to Commissioner of the Civic Guard in 1922. But this picture of O’Duffy as a martinet and a Bligh might not be the full one; while John McGahey was to recount a story similar to Sullivan’s regarding Larmer, his one portrayed his commander in a less harsh light:

I got a feeling that my pleadings were having the desired effect on O’Duffy when Dan Hogan [O’Duffy’s right-hand man] arrived on the scene and intervened in a manner most aggressive towards myself. I have felt that only for Hogan’s untimely arrival I could have succeeded in influencing O’Duffy to spare Larmer’s life.

“I failed,” McGahey concluded, something which troubled him for years afterwards.[3]

Dan Hogan, in the uniform of the Free State

Whatever the exact circumstances, and whoever was ultimately responsible, murdering those believed to be passing information to the enemy was part and parcel of the insurgency throughout the country. By the time the Truce came into effect in July 1921, five Crown policemen and two IRA members had been killed in Co. Monaghan – along with eight suspected spies. If the last seems disproportionate to the rest, then, for context, the Meath IRA Brigade ended its war with three dead policemen, three dead Volunteers and six executed ‘spies’. From elsewhere in West Cork, Tom Barry felt strongly enough to dedicate a chapter in his memoirs to this most thorny of topics. And few other acts in the War of Independence were as brazen or as vicious as when two Dublin IRA men shot a wounded man repeatedly in the head at close range after first removing him from Jervis Street Hospital on a stretcher.[4]

All the same, Monaghan saw its fair share of deeds that generally do not get included in the official commemorations. Larmer’s execution was unusual in that he was a Volunteer; generally, the IRA focused on outsiders in its spy hunts. Kate Carroll fitted that bill as a middle-aged spinster who eked out a living of sorts as an illicit poteen-maker. Though the sign left on her corpse in April 1921 marked her as a spy, the letter she wrote to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was to inform on other illegal distillers – her competition – not the IRA. Hugh Kerr suffered a particularly gruesome and prolonged end, being shot six times in different parts of his body; Hugh Duffy’s death was likewise gratuitous: beaten with a blunt object to the head, and his chin and chest riddled with what appeared to be buckshot.

IRA spy signAs with Carroll, notices were left on the bodies of Kerr and Duffy to proclaim their crime of espionage. As for the truth of these allegations, we are, of course, dependent on the word of their killers.[5]

“One of the Most Daring Raids”

However harsh the war, no one in the Monahan IRA could claim they had not been warned; when O’Duffy addressed a gathering of prospective recruits on a Sunday afternoon in June 1918, at Wattlebridge, he made a point of saying that any of them unwilling to use force in their overthrow of British rule need not bother joining. “His words left a lasting impression on me and, I’m sure, on all present,” recalled Francis Tummon. Out of the twenty or so young men, “there were at least half a dozen who listened to O’Duffy on that Sunday afternoon but never joined the Volunteers.”[6]

Ernie O’Malley

By February 1920, the Monaghan Brigade had the strength and confidence to launch an attack on the RIC barracks at Ballytrain on the night of the 15th. This was something of a milestone, being “the first barracks taken north of the Boyne,” as Ernie O’Malley noted. O’Malley had travelled to Monaghan as part of his duties as an IRA organiser, dispatched by the insurgency GHQ from Dublin to assist the various country units in their war, and may have been the mastermind behind the operation. “He was with us when the plans were made for the attack,” recalled Sullivan, although according to another participant, Philip Marron, the details had all been worked out “before O’Malley was informed of our plans.” Full credit, in Marron’s view, should go to the Monaghan Brigade Staff such as O’Duffy and Hogan.[7]

Either way, the assault went off smoothly, if that is quite the right term for something that involved blowing a hole through a wall. Before that climax, the six-strong garrison of Ballytrain Barracks had been roused from their beds at 2am by the sounds of glass shattering and dogs barking. Armed men – about one hundred and fifty, estimated by contemporary reportage – had broken into two nearby premises: a lock-up store next door, the barracks being part of a street of houses, and a grocer’s on the opposite side of the road. From these enveloping positions, the assailants fired shots at the barracks, with the defenders responding in kind.

Constables of the RIC

This exchange went on for three hours until “at 5 o’clock, the leader of the attacking party,” O’Duffy:

…demanded a surrender. The police replied by continuing to shoot. Immediately afterwards a terrific explosion was heard. The explosion, which destroyed the gable of the barracks, drove an iron bedstead and other articles through the two walls, wrecked half the building, and scattered sandbags, which were protecting the windows, all over the main road.

Wearing masks and carrying rifles, the Volunteers advanced to enter through the newly-made breach. Surrender was demanded and received. Despite the fighting having been “of the most desperate kind,” as the Irish Times reported, the victors were magnanimous. “I am glad that no life has been lost,” their unnamed leader was quoted as telling his prisoners.

As four policemen had been injured in the explosion, O’Duffy went out to inquire about getting a doctor, returning five minutes later to apologise for not having found one (the wounded men were instead taken to Carrickmacross Hospital). He also refused to touch the money one constable had on his possession and complimented another on the valour of the garrison’s defence. “One of the most daring raids for arms that has yet taken place in Ireland” was ending on a remarkably civilised and genial note – with O’Duffy setting the tone – a sign that, at this early stage of the IRA’s armed campaign, the savagery that would mark certain other incidents in Ireland had not yet taken root.

The gutted interior of Ballytrain RIC Barracks, 1920

Studying the scene afterwards in the clear light of day revealed the level of preparation that had gone into the operation:

The telegraph wires between Carrickmacross and Shercock were cut, trees were felled and placed across the roads leading to the village. On one road a disused house was pulled down and the stones thrown across the road. An iron gate was placed in the centre, making it impossible to pass.

As for what was left of the target:

The barrack presents every sign of a siege. The walls that remain standing are punctured with shots, partitions are smashed into match-wood, and the ceilings are falling in.[8]

Victory for the Monaghan Brigade and its commander had been total. O’Malley would later pay O’Duffy the compliment of being “energetic and commanding.” Notably, however, O’Malley would withhold from his memoirs the same sort of detailed write-up he would grant to similar operations in Tipperary and Cork in which he had taken part. The most he provided his readers about the capture of Ballytrain Barracks was seeing a policemen blown back through a partition by the blast; that, and a rather implausible story of him being stopped beforehand by a RIC pair while cycling to Ballytrain, forcing him to kick one and then punch out the other. O’Duffy mostly impressed him by the quality of his typed reports to Dublin (as opposed to the usual handwritten ones from other brigades); otherwise, Monaghan as a brigade did not warrant anything higher than “fair.”[9]

IRA members with rifles

And that was for public consumption. In the notes O’Malley made for the interviews he conducted years later, politeness and a measured tone could go out the window: “Monaghan people are a queer bloody people, but they are bloody thick.” Their IRA commander had “had a flair for organisation,” O’Malley conceded, “but not for fighting.” But then, O’Duffy had taken one side during the Civil War and O’Malley the other, making it probably not a coincidence that the latter neglected to include anyone from Monaghan for his interviews.[10]

The Coming Primadonna?

Notable also is the relish with which O’Malley recorded what some had to say about O’Duffy. “He talked like a mad chieftain at the meeting where the Division was formed,” Broddie Malone said. The division in question was the Fourth Western, an amalgamation of IRA brigades encompassing Connemara and parts of Mayo, in line with the GHQ policy of shifting the burdens of the war from individual brigades to the larger, newly-made divisions. The fighting had by then come to a halt, due to the Truce of July 1921, though few expected this lull to last. O’Duffy had attended the meeting on behalf of GHQ, as its Deputy Chief of Staff, but his contribution apparently left something to be desired.

“There wasn’t a man there who didn’t see through O’Duffy,” Michael Kilroy told O’Malley, echoing Malone. “We felt he was very vain, and it was evident in his speech.”[11]

Eoin O’Duffy, in the uniform of the Gardaí, post-1922

Both Malone and Kilroy, like O’Malley, were to take the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, and so hostility is perhaps to be expected from them (in other accounts, O’Duffy comes across as quite the persuasive orator), but his allies could also regard O’Duffy with a certain wariness, even apprehension. When discussing his war days with his son, Richard Mulcahy generally held fast to the principle of not saying anything about someone if he could not think of anything nice. “Oh, I always got on well with O’Duffy,” he said.

Richard Mulcahy

When probed further on the subject, however, Mulcahy admitted that while his fellow general “was a great man on paper, and he was a great man for going and doing a job…I say he was slightly a nerve [sic] character or touch of, never mind, people would say there was a touch of insanity in the family. Some kind of hysteria, nervous history.” In contrast to Mulcahy’s own phlegmatic personality, his Monaghan colleague “was a real primadonna. O’Duffy was a bit excitable and he had a streak in him that tended towards excitability.” Even Blythe, who paid due credit to what O’Duffy accomplished as Police Commissioner during a challenging time, came to resent the “excessive vanity” he soon found bubbling beneath the stolid exterior.[12]

Of course, if O’Duffy was so obviously “a peculiar mixture” – to use MacSwiney’s not-unbiased verdict – then he would never have risen as high as he did. Despite quarrelling with O’Duffy to the point of the other man trying to have him sacked from the Free State army, Paddy O’Connor “rather liked him,” finding O’Duffy “as friendly as be damned.” More – and perhaps most – importantly, “our friend thought the world of him,” O’Connor told O’Malley during an interview session.[13]

Michael Collins

That friend in question was Michael Collins. When he returned to Dublin from London in December 1921, having signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Corkonian, far from triumphant, was in a gloomy frame of mind. Dáil Éireann had yet to ratify the Treaty, and since President Éamon de Valera had announced his intention to oppose it, Collins could only conclude that the agreement, and the peace it brought, would fail. The only thing then to do, he told Batt O’Connor, was for him to go back to Cork, if and when war with Britain resumed. Better to fight in his native county than be hunted all over again in Dublin.

Alarmed at this talk, O’Connor tried persuading Collins to remain in the capital. He was needed there, O’Connor said. Collins would have none of it and, besides: “There is a coming man. He will take my place.” By this, he meant O’Duffy, as he clarified to O’Connor. High praise, indeed.[14]

The Delicate Plant of Irish Peace

Mark Sturgis

Collins was not the only one apprehensive about the future; Mark Sturgis, a leading official in Dublin Castle, noted O’Duffy’s nervous habit of picking apart matches as they sat in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, to discuss the situation in the North. As the IRA liaison officer for Ulster, O’Duffy was tasked with ensuring that the tentative truce there between the Volunteers and British forces held. Sturgis had been curious to meet the man so suddenly prominent in the newspapers, finding him to be:

A clean cut direct fellow, not a bad sort at all, but, I guess, stupid and rather truculent. He seemed business like and on the whole reasonable and when he agreed with any point of mine said so at once without any gêne.”[15]

Not so congenial was the situation in the North, over which O’Duffy had every right to be stressed. Some cases were relatively minor, such as him returning stolen money to a bank in Maghera, Co. Derry, after the local IRA had tracked down the culprits in August 1921; others not so much. Always a powder keg, Belfast had deteriorated sufficiently for O’Duffy, after days of riots, shootings and deaths, to issue a statement, via a telegram to the media on the 1st September:

… that after the refusal of the military and police to act, the situation on Wednesday morning [31st August 1921] was such that he ordered the IRA to take action for the protection of Roman Catholics, as it was quite patent to everyone that the police authorities were conniving with the Orange mob.

Ruins in Belfast, 1922 – note the British soldiers to the side


IRA snipers were placed at vantage points in the city, and in a few hours made their presence felt. Yesterday [1st September], as a result of representations made to him, he ordered his troops to cease fire. He is keeping touch with General Tudor…and other authorities throughout the day in case of further developments.[16]

Seán Ó Muirthile, An t-Óglác, 7 April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)
Seán Ó Muirthile (from An t-Óglách, 7th April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)

This was more proactive – or provocative – an approach than had been intended for a liaison officer; elsewhere around the country, others in the role such as Michael Staines and Emmet Dalton were trying to smooth over disturbances and flare-ups, not add to them. Given the intermittent violence in the North and long-simmering sectarian tensions, however, O’Duffy’s outspoken aggression could be seen as understandable, at least to some of his colleagues. “When one comes to think if it, it was the speech of an Ulster Catholic who had grown up among the scenes of the bigoted fury of anti-Catholicism, and again one ought not to be too mercilessly criticised,” wrote Seán Ó Muirthile in his memoirs.[17]

Ó Muirthile was referring to a controversial address at a Sinn Féin rally in Armagh, on the 4th September 1921, in which O’Duffy apparently threatened to ‘use the lead’ on recalcitrant Unionists. This was received as well as could be expected by the targets of his ire. “The Armagh speech…must go down as a Sinn Fein blunder, and an oratorical frost which retarded the growth of that delicate plant, Irish Peace,” read the Northern Standard on the 28th October 1921. O’Duffy was by then attempting to backtrack, “to water down his famous Armagh speech” which “more than any declaration made by any one since the Truce came into being, has hardened the heart of one class of Irishman against the other,” but the Unionist newspaper was unconvinced:

His explanation does not seem to clear the air very well, and only forces one to the conclusion that at Armagh he spoke his mind well, if not wisely.[18]

In truth, certain Irish hearts had been hard enough for a while and would remain so. Speaking his mind again, wisely or otherwise, this time to the Dáil on the 4th January 1922, O’Duffy declared that he knew “Ulster better than any man or woman in this Dáil because I have faced Ulster’s lead on more than one occasion with lead, and in those places where I was able to do it, I silenced them with lead.”[19]

This was more than idle boasting. Rosslea had seen little excitement during the War of Independence despite the presence of an RIC barracks and an IRA company; the former was evacuated and the latter contended itself with drills and training. Despite the village’s location in Co. Fermanagh, O’Duffy had had responsibility for its Volunteers – brigade lines not always adhering strictly to county ones – and was the one to first organise them in 1918. O’Duffy also wrote the order for the Belfast Boycott, warning all businesses against trading with Belfast-based ones as a protest against the ongoing sectarian violence there – which led to Rosslea’s own experience of intercommunal strife as the Unionist majority resisted this demand.

Ruined building at Rosslea, 1921 (from the ‘Monaghan County Museum’ facebook site, at https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2999985913402408&set=pcb.2999985960069070

The situation soon worsened, as shootings led to the burning of nearly all the Catholic-owned homes in the village in February 1921.  O’Duffy arrived four weeks later to discuss with the local IRA officers the next course of action, specifically whether Unionist houses should be razed in retaliation. Also in attendance was Frank Aiken; when the Newry commander expressed concern at the possible escalation, his Monaghan counterpart struck the table to emphasis his reply.

“When you hit them hard, they will not strike again,” O’Duffy said.[20]

Games of Bluff?

Despite their initial common interests, the relationship between these two leaders would, as with many others during this turbulent period, not end happily. Writing to MacSwiney in 1924, amidst the ashes of defeat, Aiken blamed many for the sorry state of affairs. Winston Churchill, for one, as the guiding hand of Britain’s malign interference, but the British statesman could never have succeeded in his mischief without the assistance of Irish stooges like O’Duffy and “the bitterness” the latter “bred and nurtured wherever it was possible.”[21]

Frank Aiken

Which was something of an oversimplification. O’Duffy had been as willing as anyone to resume the war with Britain when he met Aiken again at the end of September 1921. Aiken was by then the O/C of the Fourth Northern Division, giving him responsibility over the IRA in Armagh, South and West Down, North Louth and bits of Tyrone and Antrim, while O’Duffy was Deputy Chief of Staff. Though the Truce had come as a considerable surprise to Aiken when announced two months earlier, he assumed it would not be lasting long, a feeling seemingly confirmed when O’Duffy told him that GHQ had asked President de Valera to keep his negotiations in London going only until winter – for that, it was believed, is the most favourable season for the weaker side in a guerrilla campaign.[22]

Needless to say, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty threw all such considerations up in the air. Or did it? A céilé in Clones, Co. Monaghan, on the 6th December 1921, provided the opportunity for Aiken, Joe McKelvey, Seán Mac Eoin and a number of other IRA officers from the North and the Midlands to meet and hear what GHQ, via O’Duffy, had to say. News of the Treaty’s signing had reached them that very morning, casting the men in a doleful mood.

treatyUndeterred by this unpromising start:

O’Duffy assured us with great vehemence that the signing of the Treaty was only a trick; that he would never take that oath and that no one would [be] asked to take it. He told us that it had been signed with the approval of GHQ in order to get arms to continue the fight.

When Aiken expressed his fear that the Treaty would be something not so easy to remove or ignore once established, “O’Duffy again assured us that he would never dream of taking the oath to the British king or asking anyone to take it and that the sole object of signing the Treaty was to get arms.”[23]

Whether O’Duffy was stating GHQ policy or his own opinion is unknown, but he would repeat that line at future meetings in his canvassing of support for the new direction. Tom Maguire returned from a meeting in Dublin to report to the rest of the Second Western Division that Collins and O’Duffy had told him that:

They were only playing a game of bluff, that they did not intend to accept the Treaty at all, that their purpose in pretending to accept it was to get all the arms they could from the British and to get the British troops out of the country and when this had taken place, we would resume the fight. In other words, they would attack the British.

Maguire believed this, as did others in his Division. “Looking back it seems incredible that they would be gullible enough to swallow such statements,” bewailed one of the doubters when it was far too late.[24]

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Not all such efforts succeeded; the two Wexford brigades broke away from GHQ in their opposition to the Treaty, despite O’Duffy trying his best to dissuade them. At Enniscorthy, “O’Duffy made a very plausible speech in which he pointed out that the Army was still the official Army of the Republic and would remain so, and I had the impression that this was going down very well,” remembered Francis Carty. However, the next speaker, Gearóid O’Sullivan, the GHQ Adjutant-General, performed so badly by insulting the men and their past efforts at fighting that he “destroyed the effect created by the eloquence of O’Duffy.”[25]

Taking an Active Part

“There are people who are calling Mick Collins a traitor, who were under the bed when there was fighting to be done,” O’Duffy had told the others at Clones, a hint at how venomously personal everything was about to become. “From that night to the attack on the Four Courts, he worked like a fiend for the success of the Pro-Treaty party,” Aiken wrote. “He seemed gradually to forget the nation and to subordinate its interests to party interests, and, when talking of his opponents, he forgot all sense of justice and sometimes even truth.” There was regret as well as bitterness in this condemnation, for O’Duffy, whatever else Aiken thought of him, “was a strict organiser and one of the hardest workers in Ireland” – as demonstrated when the Civil War finally broke out.[26]

Anti-Treaty propaganda cartoon, by Grace Gifford, depicting Collins as a sellout

O’Duffy’s involvement was a brief one, enough for MacSwiney, in her 1924 correspondence with Aiken, to assume “that he took no actual part in it.” She was quickly put right in his reply: “From the 28th June [1922] until he was transferred to the Civic Guard [September 1922] he certainly took an active part in the war.” More so, as Aiken told it, O’Duffy had been one of its prime instigators and Aiken should know, considering he had been present at one such example.

Liam Lynch

Despite his opposition to the Treaty, Aiken endeavoured to keep himself removed from the IRA schism. At first, both the anti and pro-Treaty factions respected this neutrality, enough for Aiken to play the honest broker – or at least try to. When the fighting at the Four Courts broke out, Aiken hastened to the next likely flashpoint of Limerick, where the two sides were eyeballing each other. A repeat of Dublin looked to be averted when Generals Liam Lynch and Michael Brennan agreed to withdraw their respective Republican and Free State troops from certain frontline posts and advance no further – until O’Duffy arrived to upset that applecart:

The next evening the Free State forces, without giving the promised notice to Liam Lynch, broke the truce and re-occupied the posts…I was with Liam in the New Barracks when I heard of this dishonourable action of Brennan and immediately went to his Headquarters.

Michael Brennan

“I can’t, Hogan is now in charge,” Brennan was reported to have said when Aiken demanded he pull back his men as previously agreed. As soon as O’Duffy had appeared, so Brennan explained to Aiken, he had called him up and another Free State general, Donal O’Hannigan, to upbraid them. There was to be no pussyfooting on O’Duffy’s watch and, to ensure that things got done, another commander, James Hogan, was appointed over Brennan’s and O’Hannigan’s heads. Aiken replied that this did not absolve Brennan of responsibility, and was equally withering when Brennan tried claiming the Pro-Treatyites were only reoccupying their posts as a precaution: “I told him that this was damn nonsense; that it was merely a matter of time until further fighting commenced.”

Two hours, as it turned out, was all that passed before the two armies were again at each other’s throats, just as Aiken predicted – and he knew exactly who to blame:

I think I have given you a good idea that O’Duffy forced the fighting in Limerick. Brennan and [O’]Hannigan, of course, were immediately responsible, but only for O’Duffy they would not have started, as Brennan said “I don’t see how serious fighting can take place here, our men have nothing against the other lads.”[27]

As with much else concerning O’Duffy, there might be more than meets the eye here. According to what they later told historian Calton Younger, Brennan and O’Hannigan had had only been playing for time until reinforcements arrived, with no intention of keeping to any deal with Lynch. Their deception worked – perhaps a little too well, for O’Duffy, who had previously talked of bluffs (in regards to the Treaty), seems to have been just as bluffed here as Lynch was, with results that were almost as disastrous.

Free State solders behind barricade

After the battle for Limerick was done and won, and the Anti-Treatyites compelled to withdraw from the city, O’Duffy assembled Brennan’s officers and warned them to make up their minds about which side they were on. Not for the first time, O’Duffy completely misread the room, leaving pleased with himself but with his audience close to mutiny. Brennan had to spend several hours soothing his officers’ offended sense of honour lest they make good on their threats to pack up and head for home. Let it never be said that O’Duffy ever gave anything less than his full attention, for better or for worse.[28]


[1] University College Dublin (UCD), Frank Aiken Papers, P104/1317

[2] Sullivan, James (BMH / WS 518), pp. 13-4

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 134 ; Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 178 ; McGahey, John (BMH / WS 740), pp. 14-5

[4] Dooley, Terence. Monaghan: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), pp. 87, 92

[5] Dooley, pp. 90-2

[6] Tummon, Francis (BMH / WS 820), p. 9

[7] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 147 ; Sullivan, p. 6 ; Marron, Philip (BMH / WS 657), pp. 3-4

[8] Irish Times, 21/02/1920

[9] O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound, p. 147

[10] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 4, 166-7

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), pp. 62, 194

[12] McGarry, Fearghal. Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 87, 107 ; Blythe, p. 178

[13] UCD, Frank Aiken Papers, P104/1317 ; McGarry, p. 373

[14] O’Connor, Batt. With Michael Collins in the Fight for Irish Independence (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1929), pp. 181-2

[15] Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999), pp. 218-9

[16] Irish Times, 26/08/1921 ; 02/09/1921

[17] UCD Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209, p. 151

[18] Northern Standard, 28/10/1921

[19] 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 November 2022) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 226

[20] Connolly, John T. (BMH / WS 598), pp. 2-6

[21] UCD, Aiken Papers, P104/1317

[22] Ibid, P104/1307, p. 2

[23] Ibid, p. 7

[24] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), pp. 167-8

[25] Carty, Francis (BMH / WS 1,040), pp. 28-9

[26] UCD, Aiken Papers, P104/1307, p. 10

[27] Ibid, P104/1317

[28] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982), pp. 370-2 ; Ibid, pp. 382-3


UCD Archives

Frank Aiken Papers

Richard Mulcahy Papers


Irish Times

Northern Standard

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Carty, Francis, WS 1,040

Connolly, John T., WS 598

Marron, Philip, WS 657

McGahey, John, WS 740

Sullivan, James, WS 518

Tummon, Francis, WS 820

Walsh, Richard, WS 400


Barry, Tom. Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath 1913-1923 (Meath County Council, 2013)

Dooley, Terence. Monaghan: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017)

Price, Dominic. We Bled Together: Michael Collins, the Squad and the Dublin Brigade (Cork: The Collins Press, 2017)

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

McGarry, Fearghal. Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

O’Connor, Batt. With Michael Collins in the Fight for Irish Independence (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1929)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and 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 (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

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

Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1982)

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

The Elephant in the Revolutionary Room: The Irish Republican Brotherhood and its (Maybe, Perhaps, Possible) Role in the Irish Struggle, 1917-24

Rights and Authority vs Hidden Forces

Michael Collins

Michael Collins was a busy man in April 1921, but not too busy to respond to a letter from a Mr Meagher in Australia. Meagher was curious about the recent state of affairs in Ireland, fought over as it was by the British military authorities and the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Collins, with an eye to PR and perhaps out of genuine helpfulness as well, took the time to answer his correspondence point by point.

To Meagher’s query – “Is there any truth in the report that Sinn Fein is controlled by the IRB?” – Collins was emphatic that “to make such a suggestion is to show an entire misconception not only of the relative positions of these separate organisations but of the whole Irish situation.” Since its inception sixty years ago, the policy of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been that of the current independence movement and, as such, “it may be called the parent of all present day Irish Ireland organisations.”

Nonetheless, despite this prestige, despite the venerability of the IRB:

One body only has the right and authority to speak and it is the body brought into being by the freely exercised will of the Irish people. It is DAIL ÉIREANN. That is the Government of Ireland, and to it all national organisations within Ireland give allegiance.[1]

Spoken like a true democrat. Others, however, might have looked askance at this answer and wondered if its author was being entirely straightforward in his avowedly unambiguous response. Certainly, the O/C of the Sligo IRA Brigade felt he needed clarification when some of his subordinates committed a raid on a mail car, during “which some hundreds of pounds [in] letters were taken without the sanction or knowledge” of the rest of the Brigade.

Since there appeared to be “hidden forces at work that are not working for the greater efficiency of the Volunteers,” the O/C wrote to Collins, then the IRA Adjutant-General, in April 1920, asking about “the attitude of the Irish Volunteer organisation to the IRB,” to which the raiders had apparently belonged.[2]

IRA men standing to

Collins’ response a month later, as with his one to Meagher, was to dismiss any suggestion of a conflict of interests:

Arising out of your letter…re attitude of Irish Volunteers and another organisation, you will notice that there is no difference between the aims and methods of the Irish Volunteer Organisation and the other one you mention.

Noticeably, Collins did not refer to the ‘other one’ by name, as if too delicate an issue to touch directly. That was not to say that its members could act with impunity, as Collins instructed the Sligo commander to arrest the perpetrators of the mail car robbery and relieve them of their ill-gotten, and unauthorised, gains.[3]

Even so, questions continued, for Sligo was not the only IRA area uncomfortable with compromised authority. In May 1920, Collins received a letter from the Adjutant of the Leitrim Volunteers, asking him who among their ranks were in the IRB as well due to the suspicion that these Brotherhood insiders “seem to have power over us.”[4]

Elements of Consciousness

If Collins replied, then his answer has been lost to posterity, since most of the subsequent sheets in that particular batch – stored in the National Library of Ireland with the rest of his papers – are in tatters, rendering their words illegible. In any case, Richard Mulcahy was not impressed with how the Library was handling the memoranda of his old comrade. “They strike me as being the sweepings of some room,” he wrote with a sniff, “they in no way suggest the manner in which Collins kept his papers or that they were anything but crumbs indicating certain aspects of his varied work.”[5]

The National Library of Ireland, this author’s spiritual abode

With his own eye on history, Mulcahy discussed the era with another former colleague, Peadar McMahon, in 1963. While Mulcahy had served as the IRA Chief of Staff during the War of Independence, McMahon worked as an IRA organiser, dispatched by GHQ to places deemed in need of assistance, one of which happened to be Leitrim. There, McMahon found a brigade not so much dominated by the IRB as oblivious to it:

Mulcahy: Did you ever on any of your moments on organisation work come across anybody who was consciously an IRB man as distinct from a Volunteer?

Peadar McMahon
General Peadar MacMahon, in the uniform of the Irish Army

McMahon: No. In Leitrim, it was rather amusing; they pointed out ‘in such an area there is a man there who is a member of the IRB’. Otherwise you would never hear the IRB mentioned at all, simply GHQ, and because I was from GHQ they couldn’t do half enough for me.

Mulcahy: Was the fellow from the IRB an old man?

McMahon: I never met him. It was simply pointed out that he was there and I was interested enough to go and see him.

Mulcahy: Would he be from the Seán McDermott area – Kiltyclogher?

McMahon: He was. When I asked what age he was, I was told he was eighty-seven.[6]

Similarly underwhelming was McMahon’s own experiences, such as they were:

Mulcahy: When did you link up with the IRB or what contact had you with it?

McMahon: In 1917. I was introduced to it by Seán Ó Muirthile and didn’t attend a meeting from the day he introduced me to it until that meeting – 1917 to 1922.

Mulcahy: So in these three years – 1917, ’18 and ’19 – you never attended an IRB circle and you never got instructions from anybody. Why was that? Was it that it satisfied the IRB requirements that you were a member of the Volunteers?

McMahon: I don’t know.[7]

Mulcahy concurred with that description. To him, the strength of the rank-and-file Volunteers had been their “air of comradeship, naturalness and understanding of the difficulties.” Loyalty was directed towards – in varying degrees – the IRA GHQ, Dáil Éireann and the underground Irish Government, but otherwise without any “element of consciousness of an IRB outlook or IRB organisation or IRB orders anywhere else.” As for policy: ‘Join the Volunteers and take your orders from your superior officer.’ Had McMahon, Mulcahy asked, ever been told anything different by anyone in the IRB?

“No, nothing else,” McMahon replied.[8]

Richard Mulcahy, completely owning that desk

A Disputed Dispute

Obviously, these are the conclusions of two men, speaking decades afterwards. At the time, the picture did not seem so simple; indeed, the Brotherhood was a sensitive spot for Mulcahy, considering how he had lost his military command, as did others in the Army Council, in no small part because of the secret society and its alleged role in the Army Mutiny of 1924. As with the subject of the IRB in general, much is open for debate, and little known for certain. Initial responsibility lay on the body of mutinous malcontents, the so-called IRA Organisation, wrote the Army Inquiry Committee in its report to the Dáil in June 1924.


While we are completely satisfied that there would have been no mutiny but for the existence of this organisation [the IRA Organisation], we are equally satisfied that its activities were intensified by the revival or reorganisation of the IRB, with the encouragement of certain members of the Army Council.[9]

It had all been “a disastrous error in judgment,” concluded the Committee. According to Mulcahy, however, he and other ‘certain members’ in question had only the best of intentions in reforming the IRB:

[Mulcahy] suggested to the Dáil that there was in that organisation a force that required to be controlled and directed, and that he, as the Minister responsible, should take steps to have that force stabilised in the Army.[10]

Whatever the original motive, stability was the last thing achieved, least of all for Mulcahy’s career, as he was forced to step down as Minister of Defence. So did Seán Ó Muirthile as Quartermaster-General, Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan and the Chief of Staff, Seán MacMahon. Kevin O’Higgins was the chief winner of the debacle, out of which the Minister of Justice emerged as the defender of the civilian government, strongman of the state and vanquisher of troublesome cabals.

Kevin O’Higgins strutting his stuff

Assuming there had been an IRB left by that stage. McMahon found the whole affair puzzling and more than a little absurd because, as he told Mulcahy in August 1963, the Brotherhood had already been wrapped up by the time O’Higgins flexed his political muscles:

McMahon: [The] statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB was ridiculous. Months before that, I was called to a meeting at the private secretary’s lodge in the Phoenix Park. Martin Conlon was there, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Seán Ó Muirthile, Dan Hogan, Eoin O’Duffy and I think that was the lot. The meeting was called to bring the IRB to an end. It was feared that some irresponsible people were trying to get control of it, and the funds, which at that time were in the hands of Eoin O’Duffy, were handed over to Martin Conlon. The statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB came as a big surprise to me.

Mulcahy: Are you sure that that meeting was before the army episode?

Seán Ó Muirthile (from An t-Óglách, 7th April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)

McMahon: Yes. As a matter of fact, Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General, Seán Ó Muirthile was Quarter Master General.

Mulcahy: Was that the end of the contact with that question that you had?

McMahon: Yes, that was the end.

Mulcahy: Do you remember any kind of meeting that was held in Portobello that I am supposed to have been at, at which the various O/Cs of the various divisions were pressed for the purpose of reorganising the IRB?

McMahon: No, I never heard of it even and I am sure I would have been there if there had been such a meeting. I didn’t hear the IRB discussed from that particular meeting until –

Mulcahy: Would you be able to get an approximate date for that?

McMahon: It would be difficult, but it must have been before it because I know that Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General and Seán Ó Muirthile was Q.M.G.

Mulcahy: In what capacity in the IRB were you there?

McMahon: In no capacity.[11]

‘The Whole Caboose’

Which is the opinion of one man. Others would differ, pointing to the Brotherhood as not only active but ambitious, with an eye to the future as much as the present. Though the ‘IRB Constitution – 1923’ was tentatively labelled ‘Provisional’, its contents speak of an organisation determined to be anything but.

The Supreme Council was to be expanded to twenty-eight members: one from each of the sixteen IRB Divisions encompassing Ireland and Britain, four co-opted and the remaining eight – most significantly – out of the eleven Divisions in the National Army (in comparison, the earlier 1920 Constitution only anticipated a need for fifteen Supreme Councilmen). To accommodate military initiates, they were to form ‘Clubs’, each headed by a Centre who would report up the societal chain of command, and not exceeding ten-strong unless authorised by the Supreme Council – exactly like the civilian ‘Circles’ of before that were clearly intended to continue on, running parallel now with the new Clubs. These were no idle musings, either, for a note in the margins identified Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, men at the very top of the National Army, as the ones presenting this proposed document to their peers.[12]


Free State soldiers on parade

The future of the IRB had been under consideration for some time, as Ó Muirthile wrote in his memoirs. The Supreme Council, on which he sat, had not been active for a while, nor were local branches across Ireland as far as he knew, leaving the organisation in limbo and its adherents uncertain. After hearing of these concerns from others in the National Army, Ó Muirthile raised the issue with the remaining Supreme Council members and it was agreed, at a meeting in January 1923, that:

  • The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
  • This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
  • The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.[13]
Seán Ó Muirthile (Civil War caricature, the only image found of the man)

Unlike Mulcahy and Collins, who had their roles in the IRA and government as well as the IRB, Ó Muirthile’s place in the Irish struggle was largely defined by the Brotherhood – and perhaps the IRB was defined in turn by him, considering the length and level of his involvement. It was he who chaired a special meeting in Dublin, in early 1917, for the purpose of reorganising the fellowship since the shock of the Easter Rising failure and the decimation of its leadership in the resultant executions. His ‘take charge’ attitude and garrulousness did not endear him to everyone in the room, with one delegate from Galway feeling that Ó Muirthile thought “that he was the head of the whole caboose.”[14]

Another acquaintance immune to his charms was Ernie O’Malley, who remembered Ó Muirthile as “a big, burly man with a thick moustache and a prosperous air, pudding rolls at the back of his neck.” While conceding that Ó Muirthile was a good speaker and “considered a man of weight…I did not like him from the first.”[15]

Ernie O’Malley

Civil War bitterness might have coloured these reminiscences, for the two men were to choose opposing sides in that internecinal conflict, during which O’Malley identified the Free State enemy so much with the Brotherhood that he wrote in April 1923, while under threat of execution in Mountjoy Prison, of his life resting “on the whims of an IRB clique.”[16]

Lingering memories of that unpleasant experience would be channelled into academic interest. When interviewing to his peers for posterity, O’Malley was wont to ask, as one other historian puts it:

…frequent questions about the functions of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), especially in regards to its impact on the Anglo-Irish Treaty split. O’Malley was not a member of the IRB, so he had little personal understanding of its internal working and seemed to want to educate himself as to the importance of the IRB in the division of the IRA over the Treaty.[17]

“Did IRB also think it would be IRB who would do as they were told in the case of the Treaty?” O’Malley asked himself in the margins of his notebook when discussing with an interviewee the dominance of the fraternity over the 1916 Rising.[18]

In another interview, he was sceptical about Joe Sweeney’s claim that the IRB had never tried to persuade him over the Treaty. O’Malley reminded him about a book in which the author, Piaras Béaslaí, revealed how the Supreme Council had informed IRB members who were also TDs of its decision to back the Treaty.

Piaras_Beasla_Book“Yes,” said Sweeney, “I remember that.”

“Didn’t you think that was a lead?’ O’Malley said, with just a hint of a sting in his words.[19]

Leading and/or Deciding

O’Malley was not alone in his suspicions – or bitterness. Unsure as to which side to take in the looming schism, Seamus McKenna consulted Pat McCormack, a man greatly respected amongst Belfast republicans and who had sat on the IRB Supreme Council. McCormack’s advice was to stick with the IRA GHQ and choose, by default, the Treaty. Eight or months later, McCormack changed his mind but the damage, as McKenna was concerned, was done: “He had…already compromised, and led others along the same path.” Not that McCormack was alone in his perceived apostasy, McKenna being “sure that many other IRB men accepted the ill-fated Treaty on the advice of their officers in that organisation.”[20]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, lampooning Griffith and Collins

It is notable, however, that McCormack was giving solicited advice rather than orders. The grandiosity of its name aside, the Supreme Council had a tenacious hold on its followers, one that could be dropped, seemingly at will, such as when Tom Maguire chanced upon Michael Thornton in a hotel hallway during the Treaty crisis in early 1922. As part of the IRB Connaught Council, a halfway body between the Supreme Council and the Circles in that province, Thornton stood above Maguire in the IRB hierarchy.

Tom Maguire

Yet, when Thornton told of the Supreme Council’s siding with the Treaty, Maguire replied that meant nothing to him; he was a free agent and would do whatever he thought was right. Thornton left at that point, and Maguire, far from suffering consequences for his independence, continued in his rank as a Mayo IRA commander, leading his troops against the Free State in the subsequent Civil War.[21]

Even those who went the other way could do so not because of the IRB but despite it. Joe Sweeney would be one of the Free State’s most active generals in the Civil War; this despite him not wanting anything to do with the Treaty when he first read of its signing in the newspapers. A cautious man, Sweeney nonetheless travelled to Dublin from Donegal, where he led its IRA Brigade, to consult with the President of the Supreme Council.

Seeing a depressed and worn Collins in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney decided against bothering a man already under visible strain. Instead, Sweeney found O’Duffy in the hotel and took him aside. Regardless of O’Duffy’s own high placement in the IRB, he could offer nothing more definite than how it was up to Sweeney to decide for himself. It was only after Sweeney returned to Donegal and discussed with local Sinn Féin acquittances that he threw his lot in with the Treaty.[22]

O’Malley would privately doubt all this, thinking that “Sweeney prevaricated about his attitude to the Treaty.” Who had decided him? he jotted to himself in his interview notebook.[23]

Joe Sweeney in later years

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’

O’Malley’s snide cynicism aside, there is no reason to think Sweeney was any more an unthinking drone than Liam Lynch, who did not let his own membership – not just of the IRB but of the Supreme Council itself – stop him from directing the anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War. Indeed, in November 1922, five months into the conflict, Lynch was thinking up ways to reclaim the Brotherhood for his cause and thus redeem “the honour of this splendid historic organisation,” as he put it in a letter to his right-hand man, Liam Deasy.

Liam Lynch

Lynch was by then the last Supreme Council member who opposed the Treaty still alive – Harry Boland had been killed in August 1922 – and at liberty, unlike Joe McKelvey and Charlie Daly. With responsibility now solely on his shoulders, Lynch outlined to Deasy how he would go about things: an adjourned meeting from before would be reopened, in which his Supreme Council colleagues who had voted for the Treaty were to be held to account, suitably castigated by the middle-ranking IRB officials in attendance and then cast out, allowing the ruling body to be filled with more Republican-minded replacements. In the event of this meeting being refused, then Lynch would dispense with formalities and drop the pro-Treaty dissenters from his reformed Supreme Council all the same.[24]

Was this plan plausible? Not just Lynch thought so. Boland had previously outlined, in a letter on March 1922, that he and his allies in the IRB “were not anxious to force a division until such time as we were satisfied of securing a majority vote.” By April, Boland believed that majority vote was his for the taking:

The organisation holds a Convention next week, at which I am certain the proposed Free State will be condemned and all those favouring it will be asked to resign. The new S.C. will, I hope, throw all its strength behind the Army.[25]

Harry Boland

Both Lynch and Boland were angling for the Supreme Council as the prize, while believing it vulnerable to a putsch from below. Giving credence to this thinking was how – going by its 1920 Constitution, the then most up-to-date version – the IRB was, if not quite democratic, then at least reasonably representative: those in its Circles, the basic unit of the organisation, would elect a Centre, who would in turn vote in Centres for County Circles and the District Boards (each Irish county being divided into two or three Districts, with cities counting as a District in themselves).

County Circles and the District Boards were grouped into the eleven Divisions encompassing the IRB’s sphere of influence: eight Divisions for Ireland, two for the south and north halves of England, and one for Scotland. Centres for the County and District Circles in each Division met to select by ballot a five-strong committee, which in turn would appoint someone to represent the Division on the Supreme Council. These eleven men, one for each Division, would co-opt four additional members, leading to a total membership of fifteen for the ruling body.

Putting Up and Shutting Up

Which meant that the Supreme Council could not be completely indifferent to lower-tier feelings, and while it claimed in the IRB Constitution that its “authority…shall be unquestioned,” reality sometimes fell short of this totalitarian assumption. The Treaty divisions of 1922 may have pushed fraternal feelings to breaking point but, even as early as 1917, the leadership could not count on unconditional loyalty.[26]

irbA case in point was when the Galway University Circle received an envoy from the Supreme Council, Patrick Callaghan, as part of the IRB’s resurgence that Ó Muirthile had prompted in Dublin. Callaghan opened the session with a criticism of Éamon de Valera, the newly-minted political dynamo of the independence movement. Callaghan did not last two minutes before Dr Pat Mullins, as the Circle Centre, shut him up with: “If that’s what you’ve come over for, you’d better get back to where you came from.”[27]

Another Mullins, Billy Mullins from Kerry, also had a snippy exchange with an IRB superior, this time during the Truce of late 1921. After meeting with Liam Deasy and Ó Muirthile, Mullins was asked by Deasy about continuing the work of their Brotherhood.

Mullins: I’ll ask you a question first. Who is responsible for carrying on the activities of the IRB now?

Deasy: I’ll answer you now. Seán Ó Muirthile.

Mullins: If that’s the case, you can count me out.[28]

(Ó Muirthile evidently had that effect on people.)

IRA Veteran Billy Mullins
Billy Mullins in later years

Mullins stayed with the Brotherhood long enough to attend a meeting in Tralee in January 1922. Twenty-five had come, an unusually high turnout according to Mullins, who was clearly used to smaller, more secretive gatherings. After a discussion on the Big Question of the Day, “the meeting finished with a motion that further inquiries be made, but the result was that nothing happened, as it never seemed to come to anything.” Still, Mullins felt that “the majority there present…were in favour of the Republic” and against the Treaty – so much, then, for the Supreme Council controlling its underlings like obedient puppets.[29]

Also present at this Tralee conclave was Dinny Daly, who came away thinking that “more or less left it was to everyone to do what they liked.” Personal connections seemed to count for more than direction from above: “When the officers went one way, the men followed them.”[30]

Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune

This is not to say that the Brotherhood simply ceased to function: perhaps to the alarm of the Supreme Council’s pro-Treaty majority, the IRB provided a convenient framework for county or provisional representatives to vent their feelings. An example of this was on the 18th of February 1922, when a passed resolution in Cork expressed approval of how the Cork County Centre and Division Boards had withdrawn their support from the IRB upper echelons over the Treaty. Meanwhile, a report from Co. Kerry proudly told of how the Supreme Council’s decision had practically no effect on its Circles there, with pro-Treaty numbers remaining negligible.[31]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, drawn by Constance Markievicz

In Dublin, Circles expressed a range of reactions, as summarised in a notebook in April 1922, from wary reserve – “that a meeting of all Dublin centres be called to discuss the circumstances of the present crisis and that a member of SC be deputed to attend and explain position” – to anger and threats to withhold subscriptions “until such time as S.C. cease to consider us as Kindergarten Kids.”[32]

Little wonder, then, that Lynch and Boland had assumed they would have the numbers to retake control of the Supreme Council. James McArdle caught the complex, even ‘love-hate’, nature of the relationship between the top and lower ends of the Brotherhood in a letter to Martin Conlon, a member of the Supreme Council. McArdle apologised in advance for his absence and that of his like-minded colleagues at an upcoming IRB session, though he hoped that Conlon:

…will be both able and willing to defend us here from any attacks that may possibly be made on us during our absence there, or any insinuation against our sincerity for the cause, for which we are now stronger than ever, now that it has again fallen to the minority to uphold.

McArdle had evidently been expecting an unfriendly reception; regardless, he was sure that:

If our own members, the C.B. [County Board] or the S.C. require any explanation from us, for our attitudes or actions in the present conflict we will be able to give them, and vindicate ourselves before any impartial [underlined in text] tribunal of the organisation still loyal to its principles.

It was a loyalty McArdle doubted was shared by the majority of the IRB. Undeterred by the numbers against him and emboldened by the righteousness of his defiance, McArdle demanded from Conlon:

…the right to know what steps – if any – that the S.C. takes from now onward as we, the rank and file of the organisation have always to pay the piper, we claim the right to call the tune, or at least be consulted as to what tune is to be called.

Not that McArdle was likely to be consulted on much by the Supreme Council, not anymore. His letter was dated to the 29th August 1922, two months and a day into the Civil War, with the address given as Kilmainham Gaol, where McArdle was an unwilling resident and POW.[33]

Kilmainham Gaol

A High Sense of Duty

“Only a high sense of duty could have driven a group of disciplined officers in such open conflict with their superiors,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue when describing the turbulence within the IRB:

They acted against a discipline all the more precious to them because it was voluntary and respected, against that almost mystical loyalty which bound them to the organisation in good times and bad.[34]

O’Donoghue could relate. After wrestling with his dual loyalties to the Brotherhood and the Cork IRA Brigade, he chose the former and went to his commanding IRA officer to resign as Brigade Adjutant. This, Tómas Mac Curtain refused to accept, insisting that O’Donoghue remain and saying nothing subsequently about the other man’s continued membership of a society he was increasingly at odds with.

Tómas Mac Curtain

Mac Curtain had walked out of prison in 1917, believing, as did many other “responsible leaders” in the independence movement that “there was no further need for a secret movement, that the IRB should be allowed to lapse, and the whole future struggle should be based on the open political and military organisations” like Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA) respectively, as O’Donoghue put it. O’Donoghue, on the other hand, respected the IRB’s singular purpose and determination to fight for Irish freedom, in contrast to the vacillating strands of thought he found in the Volunteers, many of whom believed in physical force only as a last resort – to his dismay – and sometimes not even that.

Seán O’Hegarty

Complicating things further was how the Vice-Commandant to the Cork Brigade, Seán O’Hegarty, was also the IRB County Centre, an additional authority that he was not afraid to wield. While Mac Curtain made no move to restrict the parallel command within his ranks, tensions came to a head with the unauthorised shooting and wounding of a policeman, in April 1919, by a Volunteer who claimed that the right to carry arms had been granted to him by O’Hegarty. This challenge to the Brigade chain of command could not go unanswered, though O’Donoghue was to claim the controversy had been blown “out of all proportions to its importance.”

In any case, O’Hegarty resigned as Vice-Commandant, “not a complete solution, but it was a gesture to the authority of Tómas, and it left Seán’s IRB position intact.” And it was a position jealously guarded:

Seán would not and could not be expected to abate anything of his IRB authority, but was quite willing to work on co-operation with the Volunteers provided they were on his road.

Florence O’Donoghue

O’Donoghue was able to stay on amicable terms with both Mac Curtain and O’Hegarty even as he kept a foot in each of their camps. Perhaps out of memory for his friends, O’Donoghue – in his later career as a historian – was to characterise the trouble between them as a gentlemanly dispute over honourable principle. It is possible, however, that Mac Curtain’s murder at the hands of policemen saved relations in Cork from worsening irreconcilably – and allowed the IRB to completely dominate the IRA there.[35]

By the Easter Sunday of 1921, the Brotherhood could claim a good number of leading Cork officers, many of whom met other South Munster IRB leading lights in a house at Palmerstown Park, Dublin. Presiding over it, in more ways than one, was Collins – the President of the Supreme Council – who set the agenda: the delegates were to return to their areas and expand their Circles with fresh blood of proven worth.[36]

Liam Deasy

His audience took note. “After that we put any man of importance in West Cork into the IRB,” recalled Liam Deasy.[37]

He was by then Adjutant to the West Cork IRA Brigade, having joined in 1917 while part of the Bandon Company. Tom Hales soon swore him into the IRB after convincing him of the importance of the fraternity in the upcoming struggle. From there, Deasy rose steadily in the two parallel organisations, seeing no clash of interests between attending an IRB conclave one day and an IRA GHQ strategy meeting the next.[38]

Only Silent Men

In keeping with a body concerned with gathering influence, the IRB was interested primarily in those with clout of their own to share. Elitism was the attitude as well as an objective unashamedly pursued. “Only Bn [Battalion] and Bde [Brigade] officers sworn,” recalled Tom O’Connor from Tralee, Co. Kerry. Mere company officers or below were apparently not to be bothered with.[39]

IRA Flying Column

When Patrick McDonnell wanted to induct the entirety of his East Clare Flying Column, he was dissuaded by Ernest Blythe, who advised him to be selective: “Only the very select few you want in the IRB.” It was a case of quality over quantity, and the virtue that Blythe prized most of all was taciturnity – he wanted “only silent men.” But reticence could have its drawbacks; McDonnell never informed his colleague in Clare, Michael Brennan, that he was in the IRB, and neither did Brennan let McDonnell know of his own membership. Perhaps this state of one hand not knowing what the other was up to was why, in McDonnell’s estimation, “the IRB never developed much in Clare.”[40]

Others would remember the Brotherhood in almost comical terms. When John Joe Rice met its adherents in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, in 1917, he found them gagged with “the old idea that nobody was to be trusted with anything. They were good fellows but that idea had been drummed into them for years.” It took some time, but “as soon as they got over their initial fright of things being spoken about,” a working relationship was possible. Elsewhere in Kerry, Dinny Daly considered many of his Circle in Cahirciveen to be “a queer crowd…some of them I never thought should be in the IRB.” Of particular annoyance was how they approached Daly for recruitment after his release from prison, not knowing he was already a member: “I hauled them over the coals for being slipshod about it.”

Such ineptitude, however, did not prevent the Brotherhood from being “very strong in Kerry,” in Daly’s view. “I expect that all the officers in Kerry were IRB.”[41]

The underground nature of the IRB, even by the standards of the Irish revolution, and the insularity of its insiders, even among each other, makes its power hard to gauge – even to its members. John McCoy’s promotion to Belfast IRA Brigade Adjutant prompted Paddy Rankin, the IRB Centre for Newry, to hurriedly attempt to recruit him, seemingly “afraid that if I refused to join the IRB, headquarters might not sanction my appointment as Brigade Adjutant.” Due to McCoy’s “certain moral scruples” and belief that the IRA had rendered secret societies obsolete, he declined.[42]

Paddy Rankin

Contrary to Rankin’s fears, McCoy remained as Adjutant. That he suffered no adverse effects to his IRA position made a mockery – in Seamus McKenna’s eyes, at least – of the IRB policy to seek only the best:

I understood at the time that the main function of the IRB was to control both the leadership and the activities of the Volunteer [IRA] movement from within by ensuring that senior officers were IRB men who would see that the fight for the Republic was relentlessly pursued.

However, “I cannot recall that this was effective in Belfast.”

Roger McCorley

Both the Belfast Brigade O/Cs, Seán O’Neill and his successor, Roger McCorley, kept aloof from the Brotherhood, apparently sharing McCoy’s ethical qualms; McCorley, in particular, earned McKenna’s respect as “one of the most daring and active Volunteer officers in Ireland.” In glaring contrast was Joe McKelvey, a fellow Belfast native, whose rise to O/C of the Third Northern Division, in 1921, McKenna attributed to IRB machinations despite his personal unsuitability for command. Two of the men in McKenna’s Circle made similarly poor examples by displaying “a lamentable lack of courage when the occasion for such arose.”

Of the group overall, though McKenna was a dutiful participant in its monthly get-togethers, he could not later “recall any useful purpose served by our particular Circle.” As convenient as the Brotherhood might have been before, “from 1918 onwards the organisation, in my opinion now [in 1954], did not justify its existence.”[43]

A Secondary Business?

John Joe Rice

Indeed, some struggled to remember the point at all. Boredom, even contempt, colours many a reminiscence of time inside the fraternity. “We had all been sworn in to the IRB, but we looked upon it as a kind of secondary business of no real importance,” said John Joe Rice of his fellow Kerry IRA officers. “It was, or would only be, of use if we had to go underground again. I don’t think we had circles or meetings even.”[44]

While many Volunteers highly placed in the Athlone Brigade – to choose an example – had been sworn into the IRB as well, they noticeably drew a blank about what the latter had actually done in the course of the War of Independence. Statements include:

Seumas O’Meara, O/C of the Athlone Brigade:

The organisation did not really serve any great purpose except to keep a strong backbone on the Volunteer movement. There was not, at any time, any attempt to direct Volunteer activities by the IRB in the area…When things were really hot and principally during the period of the Black and Tans, the IRB organisation became inactive and may be said to have practically ceased to exist.[45]

Henry O’Brien, Captain of the Coosan Company, First Battalion:

On the whole, the organisation did not seem any useful purpose, but it may have acted as a stiffener for the Volunteer force. When the military situation developed to the point when they became really hot and communications became impossible, the organisation kind of faded out and became inactive.[46]

David Daly, Commandant of the First Battalion:

It is hard to say what was really the objective of the organisation at this time in view of the policy of the Volunteers escept [sic] that it formed a hard core of resistance inside that organisation who would carry on the fight should the Volunteers weaken in their purpose.[47]

Frank O’Connor, Commandant of Second Battalion:

Business was of a routine nature and discussions on the existing situation in the area and the country in general took place and suggestions of what might be done to intensify the work were made. Such suggestions usually came to nothing. Looking back since, I cannot see that the organisation served any useful purpose, but the powers at headquarters seemed to think that it did.[48]

Reading all of this makes it easy to dismiss the IRB as largely a name and little else, a thing more theory than fact, or a Walter Mitty outfit compared to the IRA or Sinn Féin. A contemporary document, however, points to a more nuanced picture, one in which the Brotherhood was as capable of waxing as well as waning, and confident enough to prepare for its revival after lying dormant for months on end.

Judging an Elephant

Seán Murphy arrived in Co. Westmeath on behalf of the IRB central leadership, on the 22nd July 1921, in a tour of the Circles to be found there. He made contact with Thomas Costello and James Maguire, the Athlone and Mullingar O/Cs at the time, who were able to guide him to their societal grassroots. Meeting each cell was delayed by bad weather and sketchy communications – the latter in particular a common problem in the Irish insurgency – but, by the end, Murphy was able to draw up for his superiors a detailed breakdown of the Circles’ personnel:


On roll: 11

Present: 8

In jail: 2

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 14

Present: 10

In jail: 3

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 17

Present: 14

In jail: 1

Absent: 2

Last meeting: 1920


On roll: 22

Present: 16

In jail: 3

Absent: 3

Last meeting: 11th July 1921


On roll: 7

Present: 4

In jail: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 13

Present: 3

In jail: 8

Absent: 2 (sick)

Last meeting: September 1920

(As all officers were in jail, Murphy recommended temporary appointments until elections for the roles could be held)


On roll: 10

Present: 7

In jail: 0

Excd.: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 12

Present: 2

In jail: 10

One hundred and six delegates met at the IRB County Board on the 29th July 1921, the first since October 1920. That gap of nine months was typical of Westmeath, where the various Circles had had their last proof of existence in the previous autumn before fading out of the picture – but not necessarily out of existence, for Murphy felt “confident of good results owing to the present constitution of the organisation in the county.” Arrangements were already afoot to form new cliques in Loughnavaly, Kinnegad, Killucan and Moyvose.

IRA memorial in Athlone

Longford told a similar story when Murphy travelled there next. Delays were again suffered, this time blamed on poor roads, but Murphy came away believing that the effort had again been worth it: “The condition of the organisation in the county is very favourable and ought to improve considerably in the near future.”[49]

John M. Regan

In his heroic attempt to make sense of the times, historian John M. Regan writes of how “the lack of available documentary evidence” makes for “no easy answers to the interpretative and methodological problems the IRB presents.” And that is only part of the headache, for the sources we do have are so wildly contradictory.[50]

Was the Irish Republican Brotherhood a splendid historic organisation? A sinister and manipulative cabal? A barely-there relic? An elitist pursuit or a pastime for oddballs? A democratic movement or the subversion of one? All are viewpoints put forward by contemporaries, each in a position to have known, and each like the Indian analogy of the three blind men who encountered an elephant. One touches its huge bulk and describes it as a wall, another thinks it a snake from the feel of its snout, while the third judges it to be a spear by its tusk – valid interpretations that nonetheless only capture part of the peculiar whole.

See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4


[1] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Copy Letter from Michael Collins to Mr Meagher to Australia’, IE-MA-CP-06-02-06, p. 4

[2] Ibid, ‘Sligo Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-36, pp. 2-3

[3] Ibid, p. 9

[4] Ibid, ‘Leitrim Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-35, p. 18

[5] University College Dublin (UCD) Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 1

[6] Ibid, p. 61

[7] Ibid, p. 16

[8] Ibid, p. 60

[9] Irish Times, 21/07/1924

[10] Ibid, 27/07/1924

[11] Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 15

[12] National Library of Ireland, Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,236; the 1920 Constitution at MS 31,233

[13] Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209, pp. 177, 229

[14] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 210, 212

[15] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 120

[16] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 367

[17] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 28

[18] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 60

[19] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and 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. 32

[20] McKenna, Seamus, (BMH / WS 1016), p. 45

[21] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 218

[22] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 264-5

[23] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 32

[24] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,240

[25] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

[26] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,233

[27] O’Malley, Galway Interviews, p. 212

[28] Ibid, Kerry Interviews, p. 62

[29] Ibid, p. 64

[30] Ibid, p. 319

[31] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,237(2)

[32] UCD, Martin Conlon Papers, P97/16(1)

[33] Ibid, P97/11(i)

[34] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1986), pp. 194-5

[35] O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2006), pp. 58-60

[36] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973), pp. 258-9

[37] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 190

[38] Deasy, pp. 15, 258-9

[39] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 138

[40] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016), pp. 155-7

[41] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, pp. 303, 305, 319

[42] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 179

[43] McKenna, pp. 44-6

[44] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 281

[45] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 53

[46] O’Brien, Henry (BMH / WS 1308), pp. 23-4

[47] Daly, David (BMH / WS 1337), p. 28

[48] O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), p. 28

[49] Conlon Papers, P97/18(ii)

[50] Regan, John M. Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013), p. 126



Irish Times


Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973)

Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

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

O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

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

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and 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 (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

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

Regan, John M., Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, David, WS 1337

McKenna, Seamus, WS 1016

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Martin Conlon Papers

Richard Mulcahy Papers

National Library of Ireland

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Book Review: My Life in Loyalism, by Billy Hutchinson (with Gareth Mulvenna) (2020)

Loyalism_Book CoverLike many a young man in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, Billy Hutchinson began his political journey as a rioter in his home city of Belfast, slugging it out with missiles and makeshift barricades against the teargas and batons of the authorities. The highlight of Hutchinson’s street-fighting exploits was during the assault on ‘Fort Milanda’, an old Milanda bakery building on Snugville Street where the King’s Own Royal Regiment had set up base, right in the heart of a community with which it was increasingly at odds.

Such feelings were vented on the last week of September 1970, when hundreds of local residents, mostly youths, surrounded ‘Fort Milanda’, hurling anything at hand and eventually using a large post to ram down the gates. Espying a chance to make a name for himself, as well as express what he thought of the whole situation in his homeland, Hutchinson clambered up a drainpipe and snatched the regimental flag of the King’s Own from where it fluttered.

British soldiers engaged in constructive dialogue on the streets of Northern Ireland

With the enemy’s disgrace complete, Hutchinson climbed back down to the cheers of his onlookers but, for him, the battle had been for more than its own sake:

It might be called ‘recreational rioting’ nowadays, but in 1970 we saw ourselves as street soldiers of a kind. This wasn’t just thuggery or troublemaking. We were defenders of the community.

He was 14 years-old; on the surface, just another young man in Doc Marten boots and a Wrangler jacket like many others in the UK but coming of age in a very different part of it. Resistance brought the respect of his peers and elders but also the less impressed attention of the British state, which harassed, arrested and eventually imprisoned him. All of which would make him a worthy subject of a Christy Moore song – except the Shankhill born-and-bred Hutchinson was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), fighting to keep Northern Ireland British.


Hutchinson is not oblivious to the contradiction of his actions: “People might wonder why we, as Loyalists, were attacking the army of a state we professed an allegiance to.” If his reader is thinking ‘good question’, then “the answer is simple: The army was being heavy-handed with young men on Shankhill, and we saw them as an obstacle to getting our hands on the republicans while the authorities dithered.”

The definition of ‘republican’ could be open for debate. The double murder of Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan in October 1974 was due to the pair being identified by Loyalist intelligence “as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know.” Hutchinson is rather coy about his own activity, describing in his book little more than how the “evidence was clearly pointing toward my involvement in the shooting” when the police brought him in for questioning.  Notably, he refers to the two deaths as assassinations, suggesting that, whatever the rights and wrongs, truth or untruth, of five decades past, he remains untroubled by the deed.

Loyalism_victimsThe criminal justice system was not quite so sanguine, sentencing Hutchinson to prison and there he stayed for the next sixteen years until his release in 1990. In a sign of how the times were a-changing, Hutchinson worked, as director of the Springfield Inter-Community Development Project, alongside Tommy Gorman, a fellow ex-prisoner, except for the other side – not that it stopped the UVF officer and Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) member from striking up a bond, as well as a mode of operation, each running programmes in their different communities, and then meeting up to compare notes.

Loyalism_Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

The two had something else in common: both had grown sceptical of the people who previously held all the answers. Hutchinson witnessed Gorman openly needling Gerry Adams, telling him that if achieving a United Ireland was simply a case of Nationalists outbreeding Unionists, like Adams was proposing, then why did Gorman have to spend so much time in jail? As for Hutchinson, he had the last word with Ian Paisley when the preacher refused to enter a lift with “a UVF murderer.”

Hutchinson retorted that such niceties did not bother Paisley when he was urging others to their deaths:

As the doors to the lift slowly closed, Paisley’s face dropped and for once he was speechless – here was a man who had led the loyalist people to heartache and death, and still, thirty years later, he hadn’t changed his tune. He was a total hypocrite.

His dealings with David Trimble went better, if only because their two Unionists parties needed each other in the Peace Process to which both were committed. Otherwise, Trimble dismissed his fellow Shankhill native for lack of formal education. “It didn’t annoy me,” Hutchinson claims:

It was pure ignorance. It was just a ploy to make people think that they had to vote for doctors and lawyers, like they had always done.

Loyalists_David Trimble
David Trimble

This relationship of a mutual goal running parallel with general contempt reflected the wider one between white-collar Unionists and their roughneck cousins. The former needs the latter for votes on election day, before abandoning them to the ghettos the next, leaving the working-class, as Hutchinson describes, “like a dog that is kicked by its owner and keeps coming back to get fed.” It’s this sort of insight that stands Hutchinson out from the other poster boys of Loyalism, the musclebound Johnny Adair and viperish Billy Wright, both of whom Hutchinson knew, and neither of which he could stand.

Loyalists_Tommy Gorman
Tommy Gorman

A curious note, then, that while Hutchinson joined the UVF to protect Northern Ireland from the horrors of Fenianism, on the few occasions Irish Republicans appear in his narrative, he seems to get on reasonably well with them. With people sharing the same Unionist cause, however, it’s just one thing after another. One wonders if the likes of Gorman could tell a similar story: his sparring with Adams ended with Gorman self-exiled to Donegal to escape the harassment of his former allies, who had driven him to distraction with fire engines and food takeaways falsely sent to his door.

Hutchinson’s internecine issues were less childish and potentially more deadly, such as when the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threw a pipe-bomb at Hutchinson’s house in 2000. As the windows were of reinforced glass – in addition to the steel doors, security cameras and alarms – the weapon bounced off harmlessly. UVF and UDA combatants bombed or shot up offices connected to the other, while family members were considered fair game, even if shared across the divide. “One guy who was in the UDA, and whose brothers were in the UVF, put his own mother out of the Shankhill” as part of the “purge against UVF-linked families.” A kicked dog can still bite, particularly, it seems, other dogs.

Loyalism_Johnny Adair
Johnny Adair, the UDA commander and constant thorn in Hutchinson’s side

Hutchinson was by then a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), but even an elected representative could not ignore the street law of the Shankhill. “Sometimes you face intracommunal issues that can’t be solved in the parliamentary chamber,” as he puts it. Hutchinson had demonstrated the implacable truth of that as far back as 1972, when he pulled out a gun at a UVF gathering to rebut a proposal not to his liking. The matter was dropped.

Loyalism_Ken Gibson
Ken Gibson

Another UVF rival of Hutchinson’s at the time, Ken Gibson, stood as a candidate in West Belfast during the 1974 UK General Election, hoping to take working-class Unionism in the same political direction that Hutchinson would espouse decades later. Hutchinson does not spare Gibson the humiliation of informing his readers of how bad a drubbing the would-be politico got: 0.4% of the vote. Gibson would later condemn the Unionist politicians of 1974 – the ones who actually succeeded in being elected – as ‘back-stabbers’, an incongruity that gave Hutchinson a dry chuckle when he read it in the newspaper. He prided himself on hearing “the mood music, while Ken Gibson was trying to play an unpopular tune.”

But tunes can be changed, as Hutchinson and even the “total hypocrite” Paisley would do when the latter stood alongside Martin McGuinness as the First and Deputy First Ministers of a new Northern Ireland – or maybe an old Northern Ireland in new clothes. The difference, then, between a warmonger and peacemaker is perhaps as simple as a single thing:


Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published in The Irish Story (07/09/2021)

Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Coming to Galway

Liam Mellows

In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?

The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”

If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!

Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.

Irish Volunteers

Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.

“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.[1]

The Plot Thickens

Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:

…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.[2]

Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.

A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.[3]

Irish Volunteers

Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.

What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.

It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.

It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.[4]

Liam Mellows at the wheel of a car, with friends, including Harry Boland (centre back)

Optimism and Comradeship

Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.

Fianna Éireann on the march

At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[5]

The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”

Robert Brennan

Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.

Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.

It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.

Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.

The Mellows family house at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

Family Matters

Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.

Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.

British soldiers in Dublin

“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.

“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”

“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”

“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.

“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.[6]

Na Fianna Éireann

At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”[7]

White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.

Fianna Éireann Scouts

The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.

Countess Markievicz

The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).[8]

More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.

Con Colbert

The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.

From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.[9]

On the Road

Liam Mellows

In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:

This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.

When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead![10]

In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”[11]

Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.[12]

The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.

Fianna Éireann  and Irish Volunteers transport weapons from Howth, July 1914

As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.[13]

A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.

The Mauser Model 1871, of the type transported into Howth and Kilcoole

Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.[14]

Police Watch

Bulmer Hobson

His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.

Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.[16]

Tom Clarke

Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.[17]

But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.[18]

A Meeting in Tuam

The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.

“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”

Market Square, Tuam, Co. Galway

The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.

“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:

…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.

It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.

“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.

“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.

Destroying the Evidence

Seán Mac Diarmada

Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.

When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.

According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:

The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.

Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.[19]

This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”[20]

RIC members

In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.[21]

An Athenry Return

Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.

Athenry, Co. Galway

The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.

When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.

(Whatever, indeed…)

Irish Volunteers on parade

The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.[22]

Patrick Pearse

But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.[23]


When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.

“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”[24]

On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.

Clarinbridge, Co, Galway, today

As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.

They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.

“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”[25]

Irish Volunteers stand to attention, Co. Sligo


These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:

I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.[26]

Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.

Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.

“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.[27]

Advertisement for uniforms, showing the spread of the Volunteer movement

If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.

Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.

He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.[28]

Nora Connolly

Nora Connolly

Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want. We have every confidence in you.

Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.[29]

Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.[30]

James Connolly

Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”[31]

The Search Begins

The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”

All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.

Helena Molony

At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.

As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.


When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.

Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.

They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.


The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:

He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.

The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.


After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:

We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.

Barney Mellows

There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.[32]

Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.

McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.

tgsa00657When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.[33]

With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.

The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.[34]

Denis McCullough

Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.

As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.[35]

To be continued in: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)


[1] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 6-7

[2] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 7

[3] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 12-3

[4] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), pp. 4-5

[5] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 2

[8] Ibid, pp. 5-6

[9] Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5

[10] O’Neill, Seán (BMH / WS 1219), pp. 12, 18

[11] Martin, p. 6 ; White, p. 8

[12] White, p. 9

[13] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1670), pp. 12-4

[14] O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 139 ; Holohan, Garry (BMH / WS 328), p. 44 ; MacCarthy, Thomas (BMH / WS 307), p. 9

[15] Hobson, Bulmer (BMH / WS 87) pp. 3-4

[16] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,654(3)

[17] Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 238

[18] Hynes, pp. 7,10

[19] Connacht Tribune, 22/05/1915 ; Costello, John D. (BMH / WS 1330), pp. 4-5

[20] White, p. 10

[21] Ibid

[22] Connacht Tribune, 17/07/1915, 20/11/1915

[23] Monahan, p. 13 ; Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 7

[24] Kearns, Daniel (BMH / WS 1124), p. 3

[25] Ibid, pp. 7-8

[26] Connacht Tribune, 18/03/1916

[27] Ibid, 25/03/1916

[28] Broderick, John (BMH / WS 344), p. 3 ; Irish Times, 26, 28/03/1916

[29] Connolly O’Brien, Nora (BMH / WS 286), pp. 9-10

[30] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[31] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919), pp. 76, 89-90

[32] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 10-14

[33] McCormack, Patrick (BMH / WS 339), pp. 8-9

[34] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 14-15

[35] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 199



Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968)

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

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broderick, John, WS 344

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Connolly O’Brien, Nora, WS 286

Costello, John D., WS 1330

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Hobson, Bulmer, WS 87

Holohan, Garry, WS 328

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kavangh, Seamus, WS 1670

Kearns, Daniel, WS 1124

MacCarthy, Thomas, WS 307

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

McCormack, Patrick, WS 339

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

White, Alfred, WS 1207


Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

National Library of Ireland

MS 31,654(3)