The Weakness of Conviction: The End of Liam Lynch in the Civil War, 1923 (Part VII)

A continuation of: The Irrelevance of Discourse: Liam Lynch and the Tightening of the Civil War, 1922-3 (Part VI)

‘A Trying Experience’

Shortly after 8 pm on the 12th January 1923, John C. Dinneen answered the door to his residence on Morehampton Road and found himself confronted by six youths, who seized and dragged him out, breaking the little finger of his right hand in the struggle. When he plaintively asked if he could at least put on his boots instead of the slippers he had, he was refused. The pistols brandished in his face deterred any further resistance – as they did to a couple of passers-by about to come to the rescue – and Dinneen was bundled into the waiting motorcar and driven away.

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Morehampton Road, Dublin

Blindfolded, Dinneen was closely questioned for over half an hour, at the end of which he was able to convince his captors that he was in fact John Dineen the insurance company official and not John Dineen the TD for East and North-East Cork. The kidnappers apologised for their error, explaining that they had been hoping to hold the other man in case any punishment was exacted on Ernest O’Malley, an imprisoned comrade of theirs.

The wrong Dinneen was allowed out of the car and left on the pavement, “somewhat shaken as a result of this trying experience,” as the Irish Times reported with masterly understatement.[1]

‘His Exacting Adventure’

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Oliver Gogaarty

Dinneen was not the only kidnap victim that night, or even that same hour. Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a member of the newly-formed Senate, was relaxing in his bath when his maid alerted him to the presence of four strangers on his doorstep – or, rather, right outside his bathroom, as the newcomers had followed the woman upstairs. Two remained on the stairs while the other pair entered the bathroom, where they ‘asked’ Gogarty to come along with them, his medical services purportedly needed for an injured friend of theirs.

Gogarty was not naïve enough either to believe them or think he had a choice. As with Dinneen, experiencing his own abduction at the same time, Gogarty was blindfolded and driven away. Catching a glimpse of his surroundings as the car stopped at a house by a river, the senator guessed he was in the Island Bridge district, next to the Liffey, an area he knew well.

He bided his time while under guard in the house. After requesting a breath of fresh air, he was led out to the yard by one of his captors. Steeling his nerves, Gogarty asked his unwanted companion to hold his heavy coat when he took it off. When the latter obliged by stretching out his hand, a revolver held in the other, Gogarty flung the coat over his head.

He plunged into the swollen Liffey, swimming with the icy current before dragging himself onto the bank with the aid of some overhanging bushes. Once again, the Irish Times knew exactly how to treat a terrifying ordeal with a light touch: “With the exception of some slight bruises about the head and face, Dr Gogarty was little the worse for his exciting adventure.”[2]

His daring escape would become the subject of a number of comic verses. As a final indignity, Gogarty – as sardonically noted by Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Local Government – missed the chance to claim them as his own until too late.[3]

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Oliver Gogarty releasing two swans into the Liffey out of gratitude to the river for his escape, in 1924. Also featured are W.T. Cosgrave (left) and W.B. Yeats (back)

Terrorism and its Countering

As the name-dropping of O’Malley would indicate, the kidnappers had been no common or garden-variety criminals. Nor had their victims been selected at random. Since November 1922, O’Malley – Assistant Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as O/C to its Northern and Eastern Division Commands – had been held in Mountjoy Prison following his capture in Dublin.

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Ernie O’Malley

He had not been taken easily, going down in a blaze of glory and gunshots which had severely wounded him and killed a Free State soldier, but gone down he had all the same. Now he was facing a court-martial, the end result of which could only be the firing squad. If so, he would not be the first IRA prisoner to be put to death.

Ever since September 1922, when the Government had passed its Public Safety Bill – or the ‘Murder Bill’ as its intended victims dubbed it – the number of executions had grown from a trickle to a grimly steady number. Even notable names and famous figures from the war against Britain, such as Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, were not safe, both being executed in December 1922.

Such a measure was controversial even among the Government’s supporters but its ministers remained unapologetic. “Once civil war is started, all ordinary rules must go by the board,” was Blythe’s verdict. When threatened, the duty of the state, as he saw it, was “to supply sufficient counter-terror to neutralise the terror which was being used against us.”[4]

Unclean Hands

On the other side, Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, was of the same opinion, the difference being that, as he saw it, it was the Anti-Treatyites who were using counter-terrorism against the sort used first by the Free State. He had taken to heart the danger O’Malley was in, as he told Éamon de Valera on the 10th January: “We are doing our utmost to take hostages to be dealt with if [O’Malley] is executed.”

To Lynch, he was merely fighting fire with fire: “We will have to deal with all enemy officials and supporters as traitors if this execution takes place. They mean to wipe out all the leaders on our side, so we had better meet the situation definitely.”[5]

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Liam Lynch

In line with this hard-edged policy, he wrote to Frank Henderson, the O/C of the Dublin Brigade. Tersely and crisply, Lynch instructed him that:

You will leave nothing undone to take three persons who are active supporters of MURDER BILL, prominent enemy officials or active supporters of FREE STATE as hostages. You will ensue they are persons we can execute, if enemy murder [O’Malley].[6]

For Lynch, ruthlessness had come slowly, almost grudgingly. On the 12th September 1922, he had, while decrying the on-the-spot killings of unarmed IRA members, instructed against retaliations on “unarmed Officers or Soldiers of enemy forces.”[7]

Three months later, he was issuing ‘Operation Order No. 14’, which called for “three enemy officers to be arrested and imprisoned in each Brigade area”, to be killed in turn for every IRA prisoner executed. By January, his Adjutant General, Con Moloney, was circulating a list of twenty-two Free State senators whose homes were to be destroyed, and the men themselves targeted, man for man, in the event of further POW death sentences.[8]

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Éamon de Valera

Even some of the anti-Treaty leaders were troubled at this escalation, such as de Valera. As President of the Irish Republic, with Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic, the two men were, in theory, partners, each responsible for their own sphere, de Valera the political and Lynch the military. But the President felt it necessary to warn Lynch that his policy “of an eye for an eye is not going to win the people to us, and without the people we can never win.”

Lynch was unmoved. “We must adopt severe measures or else chuck it at once,” he replied, stressing that, up to now, the Anti-Treatyites had been blameless: “IRA in this war as in the last wish to fight with clean hands.” It was the enemy who “has outraged all rules of warfar”, and were consequently responsible for everything that ensued.[9]

Punitive Actions

Meanwhile, inside the hospital wing of Mountjoy Prison, O’Malley himself was taking a resigned view of his predicament. When asked by a visiting Free State officer as to whether he required legal assistance with his trial-to-come, O’Malley replied that, as a soldier, he had done nothing but fight and kill the enemies of his nation and would do so again. No defence on his part was necessary, especially not for a trial with a foregone conclusion.

The only hope for a reprieve was for the prison doctor to declare him unfit for trial due to his still-healing wounds. His frail condition did concern O’Malley greatly, as he feared collapsing “at the trial through weakness, and the enemy may state I collapsed through funk.”[10]

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Mountjoy Prison

Communications between him and Lynch were possible through secret messages smuggled in and out of Mountjoy. Lynch reassured his captive colleague that: “I have great hopes that as a result of our action that your life will be spared as that of many others. I assure you nothing will be left be undone.”

That the need for such actions had come about in the first place was a source of great indignation to Lynch: “It is outrageous to bring you to trial under your present physical condition but they have done such barbarous acts that they may stop at nothing.”[11]

The IRA finally bagged a catch on the 30th January when John Bagwell, a Senator in the Free State as well as Manager of the Great Northern Railway, was led away at gunpoint while walking home to Howth. The Free State authorities had been silent on the previous abduction attempts on Dineen and Gogarty but now that one had succeeded, Major-General Dan Hogan hastened to remove all doubt as to the consequences:

NOW WARNING is hereby Given that, in the event of the said Senator John Bagwell not being set, unharmed, at liberty, and permitted to return to his own home, within 48 hours of the date and hour of this Proclamation, Punitive Action will be taken against several associates in this conspiracy, now in custody and otherwise.[12]

Published in the newspapers, this notice, with its undercurrent of menace, could scarcely be missed. Hogan underlined his intentions by gathering into Mountjoy about forty of the most prominent IRA prisoners. If anything happened to Bagwell, so said the unspoken threat, these would be first to feel the promised punitive action.[13]

Punishment as Deserved

Lynch strove to be equally pugnacious. A letter of his own to the press, signed on the 1st February, a day after Hogan’s proclamation, warned that:

We hereby give notice that we shall not give up our hostages, and if the threatened action be taken we shall hold every member of the said Junta, and its so-called Parliament, Senate and other House, and all their executives, responsible and shall certainly visit them with the punishment they deserve.[14]

This deadly game of brinkmanship was bloodlessly broken when Bagwell reappeared at the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Kept in a farmhouse, he had waited until the morning of the 6th February, when he had returned to his room after breakfast while his captors were busy eating theirs, carefully opening a window to climb out.

A cross-country runner, he was soon able to put some distance between him and his prison. After several miles of countryside, he chanced the highway and flagged down a motorist who drove him the rest of the way to Dublin. He departed for London the next day.

“It was stated that the Senator’s visit was strictly unofficial,” read the Irish Times, “and that for obvious reasons, he did not desire his whereabouts to be known.”[15]

The Personal Touch

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Dr George Sigerson

The campaign against Free State personnel continued, such as when Dr George Sigerson, the acting chairman for the Senate, resigned in early February 1923 after receiving a letter that threatened to burn his home down. Faced with such desertions, the Government hastened to stem the exodus and keep its representatives on board – and in line. Sometimes the personal touch was enough, such as when another senator was dissuaded from following Sigerson in resigning after a friendly heart-to-heart with Blythe.

Frank Bulfin was not treated quite so amiably. A group of three men – one of them being Joe O’Reilly, a former gunman in Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ – tracked down Bulfin after the TD for Leix-Offaly privately expressed his intentions to step down from his seat. According to Blythe, Buflin plaintively asked the trio if he was under arrest. They told him he was not, although the bulges in their coats that hinted that the revolvers beneath did nothing to reassure the TD. Nor did the following:

They told him it would be advisable for him to come to town. Bulfin thereupon entered to motor with them; and somewhere along the road they performed a charade, which certainly shook him.

They stopped the car and one of them proposed that they “shoot the oul’ bastard and have no more trouble with him”. Another agreed that it would be the simplest procedure, while a third, ostensibly more cautious, argued that Cosgrave would be so annoyed with them that they would be in endless trouble.

After what appeared to be a long wrangle, the fellow who was against such bloodshed seemingly succeeded in restraining the others, and Bulfin was put back in the motor car and brought to town.

By the time Bulfin was brought before President W.T. Cosgrave, Bulfin had obligingly changed his mind about quitting. “We had no other incidents of the kind,” Blythe noted coolly. “I suppose Frank’s story got round amongst the T.D.’s.”[16]

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W.T. Cosgrave

Both sides were displaying a penchant for intimidation. The main difference was the Pro-Treatyites proved better at it. No further kidnappings were attempted after Bagwell. In light of Hogan’s threats, it can be speculated as to whether the senator was allowed to abscond in order to avert the promised ‘punitive actions’ without a complete loss of face. In the test of wills, with hostages used like human poker chips, the IRA had crapped out.

As it turned out, O’Malley would never be declared fit for trial, thus saved from a court-martial and an almost certain firing squad. But, even under the shadow of death, he never lost his composure, maintaining that in the big picture, he and his fellow POWs no longer mattered: “We are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” He was more concerned that others might “take the line of least resistance and surrender.”[17]

Because not all of the imprisoned IRA officers had been as sanguine as O’Malley or as certain as Lynch that victory remained forthcoming. Breaking ranks, Liam Deasy had taken a step that not only forced the Anti-Treatyites to revaluate their chances but shook Lynch on a very personal level.

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The ruins of Moore Hall, Co. Mayo, one of the many ‘Big Houses’ burnt by the IRA during the Civil War

Liam Deasy

On the 9th February, under the headline REMARKABLE PEACE PROPOSALS, the Irish Times told of how Liam Deasy, the IRA Deputy Chief of Staff – having been arrested on the 18th January near Cahir, Co. Tipperary, and sentenced to death seven days later – had put his name to the following document.

I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –

I accept, and I will aid immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as requested by General Mulcahy.

(Signed) Liam Deasy

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Liam Deasy

Accompanying this bombshell was a longer and more personal statement from Deasy to explain his decision. His calls for a surrender was not based on the fear of defeat, he wrote; indeed, Deasy insisted that the Anti-Treatyites could continue their military campaign for years. But so could the Free State and, with the Government policy of executions, the conflict was descending into “a vendetta, the development of which would bring family against family rather than soldier against soldier.”

He had been dwelling on this sordid situation for some time and had “decided that the interests of freedom would not be best served by continuation of hostilities, and was prepared to advocate a cessation on defined lines when prevented by my arrest.”

Remarkable Peace Proposals

Despite such stated doubts, Deasy strove to present a picture of a man very much unbroken. He blamed the coarsening of the conflict solely on the Free State in its treatment of POWs. While admitting that his action might appear inconsistent with his past gung-ho behaviour, he could “only trust that comrades with whom I have worked in the past will understand the motives which influenced this action of mine.”

Deasy concluded with a rallying cry for the future and the hope that things would work themselves out:

To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.

Regardless, one critical fact could not be disputed: a senior officer in the IRA had publicly collapsed, to use a word of O’Malley’s, through ‘funk’.

mulcahy046Others picked up on Deasy’s example. A signed statement from twelve prisoners held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to meet with their commanders still at liberty and discuss a possible end to hostilities. Sensing weakness, the Government offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty – signed by its Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – to enemy combatants on condition of them surrendering with their weapons on or before the 18th February.[18]

A Satisfactory Position

Lynch replied swiftly and predictably. Delivered to the press on the 9th February, the day after Deasy’s statements were, Lynch’s written response was curtly matter-of-fact:

I am to inform you officially, on behalf of the Government and Army Command that the proposals contained in your circular letter on 29th January and the enclosure cannot be considered.

As in the case of all officers captured by the enemy, an officer has taken charge of [Deasy’s] recent command.[19]

Privately, Lynch had a good deal more to say. In a personal letter addressed to Deasy, he lambasted his former confidant for impacting on a situation that had been, Lynch was sure, won in all but name:

Before you took action our position was most satisfactory from every point of view and that of the enemy quite the opposite. Your misguided action will cause us a certain set-back, but this will be got over and the war urged more vigorously than ever. It is clear you did not realise the actual fact and that at most you only took the local view into consideration.

Still, Lynch was not so enraged that he could not add: “Hoping that peace will soon be attained and that your life will be spared to the Nation.”[20]

Lynch consoled himself with the thought that Deasy’s apostasy would have little effect on the rest of the IRA. In this, he was probably correct, in the opinion of his aide, Todd Andrews, if only because those still fighting had been benumbed to anything short of complete disaster.[21]

Todd Andrews

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Todd Andrews in later years

When Christopher “Todd” Andrews received a summons to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, to see his Chief of Staff, he could only wonder what for. That Lynch knew of his existence at all was a surprise in itself. The only time they had ever met – if ‘met’ was not too strong a word – was prior to the Civil War. Andrews had been performing clerical duties in the Four Courts as part of its IRA garrison when Lynch stuck his head into his office, giving Andrews a pleasant smile when he saw there was no one else there, and departed without a word.[22]

Still, an order was an order. Not wanting to keep his superior waiting, Andrews set off from South Wexford where he had been serving as part of its IRA brigade. Rain had begun to fall by then, in early February, and Andrews and the driver assigned to take him were soon soaked to the skin. A flooded road ahead forced them to take shelter for the night, with Andrews ferried across the swollen Barrow River the next morning.

Brought to a large country house, Andrews found Lynch in the parlour, seated by a table heaped with papers. Even years later, Andrews still vividly remembered the appearance of his commanding officer:

Liam was a handsome, six-foot-tall man, oval-faced with a noticeably high forehead from which light brown hair was slightly receding, although at this time he was only twenty-nine years old. Being short-sighted, he wore thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles.

Despite their difference in rank, Lynch greeted the newcomer in a friendly manner, introducing him to the third man in the parlour, Dr Con Lucey. A licensed physician, Dr Lucey served as the IRA Director of Medicine while doubling as Lynch’s secretary and driver.

Harsh Truths

After some small talk and tea, Lynch got down to business. He planned on travelling to Cork ‘to pull the South together’, as he put it, and wanted Andrews to accompany him as his adjutant. Flattered by the offer, and more than a little awed by the other man, Andrews was surprised further when Lynch asked for his opinion on the state of the war.

Andrews had not thought his views as a mere rank-and-filer could be worth much. But he had had the chance to study the fighting in different areas and at various times, allowing him to draw a number of conclusions, which he provided unsparingly to Lynch:

As far as I had the opportunity to observe at first hand, the military situation was going very badly. Nothing, of course, was happening north of the [Ulster] Border and between Dublin and the Border, except for Frank Aiken’s men, the IRA had virtually ceased to exist. I told him that I thought the Dublin Brigade was so reduced in personnel as to be militarily ineffective.

I related my experiences of the South Wexford men and the high opinion I formed of their quality and morale, but my information was that there was nothing to be hoped from Carlow, Kilkenny or North Wexford.

Lynch took all of this in his stride. A ‘glass half full’ person, he chose to be encouraged by the compliments his new adjutant paid to the South Wexford IRA rather than consider too deeply the rest of what had been said. Lynch said he felt certain he could put things to right once he was based again in the South, the part of the country he was most familiar with.

Andrews was not so sure. That their Director of Medical Services was also sharing in the duties of Lynch’s Man Friday did not strike him as the best advertisement for their organisational abilities but that was one thought he kept to himself.[23]

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IRA Flying Column

‘A Simple, Uncomplicated Man’

Lynch could take some solace from his toils in the company of his new adjutant. The two men quickly bonded, Lynch being amused at Andrews’ often sardonic commentary on rural mores, delivered in his thick Dublin accent. That Andrews was not afraid to voice his opinions allowed the normally reserved Lynch to open up – and he had a lot on his mind to say.

He did not hate his enemies in the Free State. Instead, he felt only sadness that they should have dishonoured their nation so. That Collins had signed the Treaty in the first place, and thus keep Ireland under the British Crown, was a source of horrified wonder to Lynch, as was the increasing savagery of the Free State in its shooting of prisoners.

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Staged firing-squad by the National Army

As incomprehensible such behaviour was to Lynch, Andrews was equally baffled at how the Chief of Staff could be so oblivious to the severity of their military situation. “He had developed some mental blockage which prevented him from believing that we could be beaten,” Andrews concluded. Lynch expressed more concern at the insulting use of the term ‘irregulars’ towards his forces – as if name-calling was a step too far alongside executions and murder – than he did at the impending possibility of defeat.

To the self-consciously worldly Andrews, his commander was a study in innocence:

He had no sophistication in any field; he was a simple, uncomplicated man, believing in God, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and, loving Ireland as he did, he had dedicated his life to her under God.

In keeping with such piety, Lynch would kneel to recite a decade of the Rosary every night before bed. Bitter at the clergy for their denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit, Andrews declined to join in these devotions, considering himself no longer a follower of Holy Mother Church. It was the only point of contention between the pair, with Lynch explaining to Andrews the distinction between the principles of the Catholic faith and the temporal politics by men of religion. [24]

The only indulgence Andrews saw Lynch partake of – besides excessive optimism – was a small whiskey in a roadside pub. Even that one occasion was the exception as, on every other time, Lynch had declined any alcohol offered in the houses he stayed in.[25]

Southwards

As promised, Lynch travelled south, Andrews by his side, leaving Leighlinbridge for the Nire Valley and then to the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, where he was due to meet Con Moloney. A Munster man to the core, Lynch was invigorated by being back on home territory, the company of his own people a welcome tonic to the months of hardship and disappointment.

But there was no time for dilly-dallying. After four or five days in the Glen, with Moloney nowhere to be seen, Lynch took off for West Cork to put a dampener on some unauthorised peace talks he had caught wind of. He left Andrews with instructions to inform Moloney, when he finally appeared, of his decision to set up base in the South where he could continue directing the war.

When Andrews learnt that Moloney had been picked up in one of the National Army’s sweeps, he realised that Lynch’s plan of ‘pulling the South together’ from Tipperary was already defunct. Any IRA structure there had collapsed into a desperate struggle by individuals just to survive.[26]

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IRA members

When Andrews rejoined the Chief of Staff in Ballinyeary, he found Lynch at a table surrounded by papers and maps, Dr Lucey typing away at a side table, much like their first meeting. As before, Lynch received him warmly. He was unsurprised at the loss of Moloney and also undismayed when Andrews reported on the general state of disarray amongst the Tipperary IRA.

Lynch refrained from mentioning – Andrews learnt this from Lucey instead – about his muster with the staff and officers – those who were left – of the First Southern Division on the 26th February. Not only had they told him facts he had no wish to hear, they had pressed him into something he had been putting off for some time.[27]

The First Southern Division

One misunderstanding Lynch had been keen to correct to the assembled delegates from the Cork and Kerry brigades – fourteen in all, including him – was that it had been Éamon de Valera who had turned down their initial request for an Executive meeting. While Lynch stressed the relationship between the IRA and de Valera’s government-in-exile as a tight one, he left the others in no doubt as to which wing of the republican struggle held the upper hand.

“The President was of great assistance,” Lynch assured them, “but had no authority to interfere in Army matters and he (C/S) was alone responsible for summoning Executive.”

Lynch had postponed a second meeting of the IRA Executive – the first had been four months before in October 1922 – due to the importance, he said, of officers remaining in their own brigade areas with no distractions. Also, Lynch had been on the move and so missed the correspondence from the First Southern Division about their desire for an Executive session.

It was a wishy-washy response on Lynch’s part – he had turned down the chance for an Executive meeting, yet could not be blamed for not calling another – but the other men seemed to let it pass. There was, after all, more to discuss, which boiled down to two points: the reaction to the Divisional ranks to Deasy’s surrender appeal and the state of morale otherwise.

The good news was that it was unanimously agreed that the former had had little effect. The bad was that no one present, save for Lynch, thought they had a chance of surviving through the summer, let alone of winning.

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Officers in the First Southern Division posing before the Mansion House, Dublin, in March 1922. Liam Lynch is seated in the front row, fourth from the left, with Liam Deasy fifth.

Great Hopes for the Future

“If the enemy pressure is maintained we can’t last and will be wiped out in a short time” was the verdict from the O/C of the First Kerry Brigade. Whether large operations or smaller-scale reprisals, any action on his unit’s part was impossible given its poverty of resources compared to the Free State’s, whose “steam rolling of the South would soon finish us,” he gloomily predicted.

The Divisional Director of Operations was of like mind and spread some of the blame on the other areas: “The whole position of the South depends on the rest of the country and the relief it can give us. All Brigades agree a summer campaign is impossible and if the rest of the country fails we cannot exist.”

He also pointed that the National Army had recruited up to 20,000 extra men. The Free State could keep resistance in the South pinned down and still have the numbers to focus on the rest of the country.

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IRA Flying Column

Lynch took tall his naysaying in his stride. Having done his best listening impression, he told the others that he:

…quite realised the position in the South and the morale and suffering of the men and officers. It was in the South that the British were beaten and felt the attitude of the enemy towards the men who won the war for them. He reviewed the position in the rest of the country and although the position in the South was pretty bad he felt the situation in general was very good and held great hopes for the future.

He would not be continuing the war if he did not think they could win, Lynch assured them. None of those present appeared convinced, though no one had the gumption to openly doubt Lynch’s cheery forecast. Some instead took refuge in a grim fatalism, such as the O/C of the Third Cork Brigade who declared that his men would plough on “until beaten which is not far off.”

One common demand was for the overdue Executive meeting for which they had previously asked. That way, it was hoped that there could be a chance to clear the air and ask the necessary questions as to what to do next.[28]

Lynch left the meeting with a certain amount of distaste for the outspokenness he had encountered. To him, such reluctance to keep quiet and press on was perilously close to mutiny. “What they mean by acting on their views, I cannot understand,” he complained in a letter to Con Moloney on the 29th February, three days after the pow-wow. “However, I hope we are now done with it.”

As for the doom and gloom on display, it had been for Lynch to endure, not seriously consider. Writing again to Moloney on the 2nd March, he said, unaware of how his recipient had five days left before capture: “I still have an optimistic view of the situation; if we can hold the Army fast all will be well.”[29]

The Extracurricular Activities of Tom Barry

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P.J. Ruttledge

Another thorn in Lynch’s side was Tom Barry. P.J. Ruttledge, a prominent member of the Mayo IRA who spent much of the Civil War by Lynch’s side, remembered the celebrated hero of the famous West Cork flying column as being “always very annoying to Liam Lynch.”

His renown seemingly gone to his bushy head, Barry would sneer at others for their lack of pluck, while simultaneously insisting that the war was lost and it was time to surrender. While not incorrect, his abrasive manner did him no favours, and neither did the discovery that the Free State, according to Ruttledge, granted Barry carte blanche to travel as he pleased in the hope that he would win others to his point of view.[30]

Frank Aiken, an Armagh-born member of the IRA Executive, also remembered how “Mr. Barry’s activities at that time [February 1923] were a source of great worry to the then Chief of Staff”, and that Lynch had written to Aiken, complaining at how “Barry is doing his worst here.”[31]

Barry was assisted in ‘his worst’ by Father Tom Duggan, a priest broadminded enough to have been a chaplain in the British Army despite his staunchly republican views. This forbearance helped make Father Duggan liked and trusted by everyone, with the notable exception of Lynch, who made it clear both to the priest and Barry that no backtracking on the Republic was going to happen on his watch.

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Father Thomas Duggan

To punctuate the point, he wrote a strongly-worded letter, ordering his subordinate to cease and desist in his crusade for peace. The headstrong, increasingly independent Barry was proving to be, in his own way, just as much a nuisance as Deasy’s letter of surrender.

But, unlike poor, beaten Deasy, Barry was not someone Lynch could just brush aside.

‘A Tirade of Abuse’

Lynch probably assumed that his letter would be the end of the matter; that is, until the door to his bedroom for the night was kicked open, startling both him and Andrews. The adjutant’s first thought at seeing the figure in the doorway, a lighted candle in one hand and a sheet of papers in the other, was that the Free Staters had found them at last.

Instead, it was an incandescent Barry. He was waving the letter while demanding to know if Lynch had written it. When Lynch gave the briefest of answers in the affirmative, the floodgates opened:

Then followed a tirade of abuse from Barry mainly directed at asserting the superiority of his fighting record. Barry’s peroration was dramatic: ‘I fought more in a week than you did in your life.’ Liam simply said nothing. Having emptied himself of indignation, Barry withdrew, slamming the door.

Andrews could not help but laugh. It all seemed too much like something out of a theatrical comedy.

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Tom Barry

The mood between Barry and his nominal superior had scarcely improved when they met later in Ballingeary. When Lynch, Andrews and Dr Lucey arrived, they found Barry and Father Duggan, along with several others, already present on the other side of the street. The tension was palatable and, once again, Andrews drew comparisons to fiction, the scene resembling to him “a Western film where rival groups of ranchers come into some cowtown to shoot out their differences.”

Thankfully, the proceedings did not become that bad but, by the time the two parties withdrew, nothing between them had been resolved. There was no change in IRA policy, contrary to what Barry and Father Duggan had been pushing for, so in that regard Lynch had had his way – for now.[32]

A Republican Itch

Barry’s frustrations did not stop him from being a consummate professional when called upon. Travelling on board a lorry with Lynch and his entourage to the Executive conclave, to be held once again in Co. Tipperary, Barry impressed Andrews with his care and dedication as he dismounted at every crossroads in order to ensure there were no ambushes-in-waiting. The mood inside the vehicle was a jovial one, the others amused at Barry’s take-charge attitude.

After stopping for the night, Lynch allowed a sickly-looking and careworn Andrews to stay behind. Like Deasy, Andrews had developed the ‘Republican itch’ or scabies, an infliction which Lynch remained serenely untouched by despite the two men sharing a bed. Quietly relieved at being spared a journey over the Knockmealdown Mountains, with the inevitable hell it would play on his sores, Andrews made no complaint and gratefully accepted the five-pound note Lynch handed him for expenses.

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Knockmealdown Mountains

Before they separated for the last time, he and Lynch were able to enjoy one last chat. Lynch made it clear that he had not wanted the Executive meeting. He had not even wanted the Republican government-in-exile that the Anti-Treatyites had set up. Both bodies posed the danger that they would force some kind of compromise peace, the very last thing Lynch would ever agree to. Not that he was overly concerned, assuming as he did that whatever doubts and dissensions thrown his way would be brazened out.

New Orders

Then Lynch dropped a bombshell. Andrews, he said, was to be assigned to take change of the West, where he was resting his hopes for a republican comeback. Having never held as much as a modest command nor even crossed the Shannon, Andrews could not help but wonder what Lynch was thinking:

I suppose I should have been flattered that the Chief of Staff should have viewed me in these favourable terms; I always thought that he regarded me as a reliable dogsbody, agreeable and sometimes amusing. On reflection, I didn’t take his remarks too seriously, feeling sure that with second thoughts he would realize the absurdity of the idea or, if not, someone would surely point it out to him.[33]

Or so Andrews hoped. O’Malley had been equally flummoxed when Lynch assigned him to the organisation of the IRA in Ulster and Leinster, areas that he, like Andrews and the West, felt entirely unsuited for. Promoting people outside their comfort zones was clearly something of a habit for Lynch. Perhaps he saw only the best in them. Alternatively, he might have been lacking anyone else.

However, despite his perceived shortcomings, O’Malley had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Andrews might have done just as well, so Lynch’s instincts could have been correct at least on those occasions.[34]

The Executive Meets

On the 23rd March, the IRA Executive assembled at Bliantas, west of the Nire Valley. Due to enemy presence, the attendees were obliged to move deeper into the Valley on the 25th, where they continued in Glenanore until the 26th. For all the difficulties, a reasonably sized number had managed to attend, such as Lynch, Barry, Tom Crofts, Seán MacSwiney, Humphrey Murphy, Bill Quirke and Seán Hyde.

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Nire Valley

Also there was de Valera, although it first had to be agreed whether he could sit in on the conclave. The President of the Republic waited outside until votes were taken for his admission, albeit without voting rights.[35]

Nothing better illustrated de Valera’s powerlessness and failure to be anything other than a reluctant observer. When Lynch received word in February 1923 that the president was attempting to again use his ‘Document No. 2’ as an alternative to the Treaty, he wrote sharply, warning de Valera that “your publicity as to sponsoring Document No. 2 has had a very bad effect on army and should have been avoided.”

It was the same line Lynch had taken with Deasy: it was all great until you complained, and now everything wrong is your fault. He added cuttingly to de Valera: “We can arrange peace without reference to past documents.”[36]

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Éamon de Valera

For all the degradation he had so far endured, de Valera made the most of his opportunity before the Executive, proposing certain terms with which peace with the Free State could be negotiated. To the surprise of no one, Lynch was adamantly opposed, as convinced as ever that victory was achievable.

According to one second-hand account who heard about the meeting afterwards: “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”

When Barry raised a motion that “in the opinion of the Executive, further armed resistance and operations against the F.S. Government will not further the cause of independence of the country”, it was defeated by six votes to five. Lynch had provided the deciding vote.

Back in the IRA Convention of June 1922, it had been Barry who had helped scupper Lynch’s plans for a reunification of the sundered IRA, the last ditch effort for a peaceful solution. Now Lynch had returned the favour.

Divergence

Once again, Lynch had sidestepped the doubts of others and ensured that, by concluding on nothing, the meeting would make no difference to the war effort. But that so many were leaning towards some – any – kind of compromise meant that Lynch was not as in control of the Executive as he would have liked.

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Austin Stack

His own Deputy, Frank Aiken, openly agitated for de Valera’s suggestions in a foreshadowing of the political relationship to come. Austin Stack’s contribution was to argue for the IRA to stop fighting, but not to end the war per se, without explaining how these two opposing concepts could be met. It was typical of the disarray and confusion afflicting the anti-Treaty command.

“It proved impossible to reconcile the divergent views held by members of the Executive,” was how Florence O’Donoghue, Lynch’s friend and biographer, put it.[37]

In a strange sense, history was repeating itself. Lynch had also struggled to rein in his Executive in the months leading up to the Civil War. The main difference was that then he had been regarded as unduly moderate, a sell-out in the making. Now the roles had been reversed and it was Lynch who was rejecting any deviations from the straight and narrow, regardless of what others wanted.[38]

Waiting for Miracles

sean-moylan-memoirsFor want of anything else to say, it was agreed to hold another Executive meeting for the 10th April. To many, this might have seemed like nothing more than the dragging out of the inevitable. For Lynch, it had bought enough time for the Western resurgence he had spoken about to Andrews to start making a difference.

Another iron in the fire was the field artillery Lynch was expecting. He had assigned Seán Moylan to the United States in November 1922 to act as a liaison officer with sympathetic Irish-American groups. The Americans were to raise the funds that would be passed on to Germany for the purchase and later transport of the weapons.

Lynch was specific in his requests – four mountain batteries of artillery, with four guns to a battery, and as much ammunition as could be bought. Lynch predicated to Moylan that these “would completely demoralise enemy and end the war,” envisioning how it would only take one such weapon, shared between the IRA, to do the trick.

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Joseph McGarrity, a contact of Moylan’s in America

Such was his certainty that he felt entitled to quibble over the cost. Professing himself surprised at how much money he was told would be needed, he instructed Moylan not to worry over quantity. After all, “a big cargo is not required; even a few, with sufficient shells, would finish up the business here.”[39]

In the end, none of these miracle weapons ever appeared. Neither did the all-conquering legions from the West. Perhaps these failures would have finally convinced Lynch of the hard truth before him. Perhaps not.

Crohan West

In the fortnight before the next Executive conclave, Lynch took refuge in a number of safe-houses. The most impressive was a converted cowshed near Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, artfully designed for concealment:

The whole building was about thirty feet long and ten wide, with corrugated iron walls and a roof partly of thatch and partly of corrugated iron. Access to the hiding place was from inside the cow shed, so that no trace led to it from outside, and the entrance was so cleverly constructed in what was apparently the inside of the end wall that it could not be opened except by one who knew the secret.[40]

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Tom Derrig

In the meantime, Tom Derrig was captured in Dublin on the 6th April, during which he was shot and wounded in the jaw. “It is understood that the authorities attach a considerable importance to Mr Derrig’s arrest,” wrote the Irish Times, as well the authorities might, for Derrig marked the fourth loss of an IRA Executive member, after O’Malley, Deasy and Moloney.[41]

In a move more humiliating than harmful, but no less damaging, captured minutes for the First Second Division and the Executive meetings were published on the 8th April. The discord inside the anti-Treaty leadership between the die-hards, such as Lynch, and those who had had enough, like Barry and de Valera, were now exposed for all to see.[42]

Before departing from his converted cowshed, Lynch had the heel of his boot fixed. A leather strap was found and used to bind his papers together. With these final details seen to, he and his party set off with a few others towards the meeting.[43]

The group of six – Lynch, Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen and Seán Hyes – reached the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, where they spent the night in a friendly house. At 4 am on the 10th April, the scouts posted outside alerted them to the presence of an enemy column on the road to nearby Goatenbridge, forcing them to relocate to another house higher up on the mountain of Crohan West.

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Croahn West, Knockmealdown Mountains

When daylight came, the men looked down on the valley and saw that the Free Staters were now in sufficient numbers to form three columns. They were not overly concerned, assuming that the Pro-Treatyites were merely on a routine patrol and would soon pass by.

It was classic Lynch. He had been underestimating the opposite side and overestimating his own since day one. The IRA men were settling down for a cup of tea at 8 am when a sentry rushed in to tell them that one of the columns was heading directly for them.

On the Run

Seeking the high ground, the six men dashed towards Crohan West. With only two revolvers between them, Lynch sent word to the two scouts posted elsewhere to come and join them. One had a Thompson machine gun and the other a rifle, with the power and range to better their odds. While they waited at the head of the glen and with neither of the scouts yet to be seen, the Free Staters appeared over a rise.

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National Army soldiers

As shots were exchanged, the Anti-Treatyites fell back towards Crohan West, taking advantage of the cover afforded by a shallow riverbed until they had no choice but to dash across open ground. Seizing their chance, the Free Staters fired at the exposed men as quickly as their rifles allowed from between three and four hundred yards away. Their targets shot back ineffectively with their revolvers, more to distract than out of any real hope of causing harm.

Lynch was already winded from the run, prompting Hydes to take him by the hand and hurry him along. The firing had abruptly ceased, as if both sides were holding their breath, when a single shot rang out. Lynch fell.

“My God! I’m hit, lads!” he cried.

Scarcely believing their foul luck, the others went to Lynch’s side. Seeing their targets grouping together, the Free Staters below renewed their volleys. With no time for anything else, the party carried their stricken leader, with one reciting, and Lynch repeating, the Act of Contrition. In terrible pain, his misery worsened by the motion, Lynch begged his companions several times to leave him until, saying – an optimist to the end – that the Staters might be able to bandage him.

Finally, the other five let him down and made the harsh decision to do what he said. Pausing only to pick up his gun and the documents, they continued in their flight across the mountain until finally out of sight and range.

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Frank Aiken

“It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Aiken later wrote. He could not even bring himself to say farewell to Lynch lest the moment be too much. None of them see a reason why Lynch alone had been hit other than the implacable, inscrutable will of God. It seemed to Aiken as good an explanation as any.[44]

 “I am Liam Lynch”

Forcing their way through the thick undergrowth of brushwood that provided the only cover on that bleak mountaintop, the forty green-coated soldiers pressed on uphill. They found a man lying face up, cushioned by some shrubbery, his clothes dark with blood.

“Are you de Valera?” one of the soldiers asked him.

“I am not,” the stricken man replied. He sounded more weary than anything else. “I am Liam Lynch.”

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Cloe-up of Crohan West

Lynch had not even been spared the final indignity of mistaken identity, being confused with someone he had regarded as a figurehead at best, a nuisance at worst. He spoke little else as his captors carried him down the mountain in a litter to the village of Newcastle, where a priest and a physician administrated some spiritual and medical aid respectively. A National Army doctor who arrived soon after found two bullet wounds on either side of the wounded man, between his rib cage and hip, caused by the same bullet tearing through.

When the two doctors agreed that their patient would have to be moved to better facilities, an ambulance drove Lynch to the military ward of St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel, where he died almost three hours later, just before 9 pm. Death was ruled to be a result of shock and haemorrhaging. He was twenty-nine.

Among Lynch’s last recorded statements was: “You missed Dev by a few minutes.”

Searching the area further, soldiers found in a nearby farmhouse an assortment of clothing items such as hats and coats. It was concluded that the anti-Treaty conference had been in the process of assembling, and that if the National Army had struck half an hour later, it might have caught more than the one man they did.[45]

Still, it was no less a significant catch. “The death of Liam Lynch removes one of the most important – if he was not actually the most important – of the leaders of the Republican party,” wrote the Irish Times, which described him as “the most obstinate and unflinching of the Government’s opponents.”[46]

Lynch, Dead
Liam Lynch in his coffin

Aftermath

“Poor Liam, God rest him,” wrote O’Malley from Mountjoy, two days later on the 12th April. While he was sure that Aiken would do well as the new Chief of Staff, Lynch had had:

…an intimate knowledge of the South and a general knowledge of the personnel in all areas which Aiken has not and would not have for another twelve months, so really there is no one fit to step into his shoes. It’s the biggest blow by far we have received.[47]

The difference between the two men would become even more apparent by the end of the month, when Aiken, working in tandem with de Valera, signed an order for the suspension of hostilities, to take effect on the 30th April. Meanwhile, de Valera was opening negotiations with the Free State.[48]

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Frank Aiken (left) and Éamon de Valera (right)

Even when this political outreach proved fruitless, Aiken showed no desire to return to the fighting. On the 24th May, he ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War at long last.[49]

Aiken intended for this to be a respite, not a surrender. “They are quite wrong if they think they have heard the last of the IRA and the Irish Republic,” he wrote to Lynch’s brother on July 1923. Lynch would have been horrified all the same but Aiken, unlike his late predecessor, was able to differentiate between what he wanted and what was possible.[50]

References

[1] Irish Times, 15/01/1923

[2] Ibid

[3] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 176

[4] Ibid, p. 178

[5] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 340

[6] Ibid, p. 347

[7] Ibid, p. 172

[8] Ibid, pp. 530, 533-4

[9] Palenham, Frank and O’Neill, Thomas P. Eamon de Valera (London: Hutchinson and co, 1970), p. 208

[10] Ibid, p. 348

[11] Ibid, p. 349

[12] Irish Times, 03/02/1923

[13] Blythe, p. 176

[14] Irish Times, 02/02/1923

[15] Ibid, 10/02/1923

[16] Blythe, pp. 176-8

[17] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 359

[18] Irish Times, 09/02/1923

[19] Ibid, 10/02/1923

[20] National Library of Ireland (NLI), Ernie O’Malley Papers, MS 10,973/16/4

[21] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 288

[22] Ibid, pp. 237, 286

[23] Ibid, pp. 287-9

[24] Ibid, pp. 290-2

[25] Ibid, 303

[26] Ibid, pp. 292, 294-5

[27] Ibid, p. 298

[28] NLI, Ernie O’Malley Papers, MS 10,973/7/42

[29] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 297

[30] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), pp. 274, 279

[31] Irish Press, 06/06/1935

[32] Andrews, pp. 229-301

[33] Ibid, pp. 299, 302-4

[34] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 180-1

[35] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 237

[36] Pakenham and O’Neill, p. 215

[37] O’Donoghue, pp. 299-301 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 146-7

[38] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40

[39] Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers: Revelations of the Irish Revolutionary movement in Ireland and America 1900-1940 (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972), pp. 134-5

[40] O’Donoghue, p. 302

[41] Irish Times, 07/04/1923

[42] Irish Independent, 08/04/1923

[43] MacEoin, p 147

[44] Sinn Féin, 12/04/1924 ; NLI, Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/30

[45] Irish Times, 12,13/04/1923

[46] Ibid, 11/04/1923

[47] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 371

[48] Irish Times, 28/04/1923

[49] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 377

[50] NLI, MS 36,251/30

Bibliography

Books

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

Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers: Revelations of the Irish Revolutionary movement in Ireland and America 1900-1940 (Tralee, Anvil Books, 1972)

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

Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

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

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)

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

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

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Pakenham, Frank and O’Neill, Thomas P. Eamon de Valera (London: Hutchinson and co, 1970)

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sinn Féin

Bureau of Military History Statement

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

National Library of Ireland

Ernie O’Malley Papers

Liam Lynch Papers

 

 

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Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

Tensions Brew

In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.

The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.

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Count Plunkett

According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”

Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.

But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”[1]

Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.

Kevin O’Shiel

His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:

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Kevin O’Shiel

Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.

The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.

The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”

When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”[2]

O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.

William O’Brien

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.

Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”

(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)

Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.

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William O’Brien

O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”[3] – this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.

(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)

The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.[4]

Factions

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Michael Collins

Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.

The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).

A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.

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Arthur Griffith

He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”

O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.

Locking Horns

The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.

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Rory O’Connor

Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.

The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.

It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.

As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.[5]

Disclosure and a Concert

For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:

We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.

The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”[6]

If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:

People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.

It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].

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His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.

With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.

The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.[7]

Thrown Out

True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.

In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?

Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.

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The Mansion House, Dublin

This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.

The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.

Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.[8]

An Announcement in Sligo

Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.

On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett

He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.[9]

First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.

Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).

Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:

Dear Sir,

Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:

  • Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
  • To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
  • To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.

If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?

It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.

Please do what you can as soon as possible.[10]

The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.[11] 

Rejects

The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:

The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.

At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.

It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”

Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.

Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.

If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?[12]

The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?

Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.

Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:

To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.

As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.

As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”

Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.

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(left to right) Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Arthur Griffith and Austin Stack

An Apple of Discord

Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”

Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”[13]

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Priests  at Maynooth University

Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”[14]

At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”[15]

Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”[16]

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Count Plunkett

‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’

The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:

Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.

“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.

Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”

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Father Michael O’Flanagan, one of the Count’s most ardent clerical supporters

Also writing to the Irish Independent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.

A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”[17]

A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”[18]

Moving Onwards

plunkettCount Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.

The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.

In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.

“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”[19]

How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.

Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

 

References

[1] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 29-30

[2] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 22-3

[4] O’Brien, (WS 1776), pp. 98-101, 108 ; O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[5] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 135 ; O’Brien (WS 1776), pp. 101-103, 108 ; Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 21-2

[6] FJ, 03/03/1917

[7] Irish Times, 06/03/1917 ; Irish Independent, 06/03/1917

[8] FJ, 06/03/1917

[9] Irish Times, 19/03/1917

[10] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,383/3/11

[11] O’Shiel, pp. 33-4

[12] Cork Examiner, 02/04/1917 ; Sligo Independent, 14/04/1917 ; Irish Independent, 28/03/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 16/04/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[14] NLI, MS 11,383/4/6

[15] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/3

[16] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/2

[17] Irish Independent, 17/04/1917

[18] Ibid, 18/04/1917

[19] NLI, MS 11,383/1/7

 

Bibliography

Books

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

O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Evening Telegraph

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sligo Independent

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Plunkett’s Rising: Count Plunkett and His Family on the Road to Revolution, 1913-7 (Part I)

“It is a true fact that the greatest swordsman in Italy would not fear the second greatest but would fear the worst, for that one would be unpredictable” – The Masque of Red Death (1964)

A Simple Soul

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Count Plunkett

Towards noon on Easter Monday 1916, Monsignor Michael J. Curran received word that Count George Plunkett was waiting outside his office. Guessing that this would be about some new development in the unfolding, but so far still uncertain, situation in Dublin, Monsignor Curran agreed to see him.

Five minutes later, Curran was sitting with the Count, grey-haired and bearded. His caller asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, to whom Curran was secretary. Curran replied that His Grace was ill in bed and not to receive anyone except his doctor.

Which was not entirely true but the Monsignor’s duties included acting as gatekeeper to his master. Things were tense enough as it was, what with the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry, the planned mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers and the abrupt countermanding orders by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.

“Well,” said the Count, according to Curran’s recollections, “it is not necessary that I see him personally but, if you would tell him, it would be alright.”

Plunkett proceeded to inform Curran that there was going to be an uprising in Ireland and that he had already visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome to inform him of such. His Holiness had been asked not to be shocked or alarmed as the rebellion was to be purely in pursuit of the same independence that every country was entitled to. The Count had then asked for the Pontiff’s blessing for the endeavour.

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Archbishop William Walsh

Monsignor Curran was still listening to the story when the telephone rang in his office. Curran answered it to learn that the General Post Office (GPO) had just been seized and occupied by the Irish Volunteers. He returned to inform his visitor that the uprising the latter had warned about was already underway. Curran would later consider it noteworthy that Plunkett had come to him on the day the rebellion began and not before, presumably to leave no window of opportunity for the Archbishop to change anyone’s mind.

Once his visitor had left, Curran hurried to relay what had occurred to his superior. Even after being told the Count’s message, Walsh was more concerned about what MacNeill, rather than Plunkett, might do, looking upon the Count as less of a leader and more “as a simple soul and [he] could not conceive a man like him being at the head of a revolution.”[1]

A Conservative Catholic Gentleman

The Archbishop’s scepticism was understandable, considering how the Count had never shown a radical bone in his body. As far as many were concerned, he was simply:

…a conservative Catholic gentleman with harmless literary and cultural tastes which his job as Director of the National Gallery (bestowed on him by the Liberal Government) gave him ample time and opportunity to indulge in.[2]

This, at least, was the view of the political activist Kevin O’Shiel. It was not an altogether wrong one, though O’Shiel was incorrect about the Gallery. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had been offered its directorship by Dublin Castle in the spring of 1916 on the condition that his family stay out of politics but he defiantly turned it down (being already the director of the National Museum, which was probably what O’Shiel meant).[3]

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William O’Brien

Similar sentiments were expressed by William O’Brien, a trade unionist who had been closely involved in the planning of the Rising. O’Brien knew very little about Plunkett by the time the latter grew in prominence in early 1917, only that he had previously only seen his name “in connection with various projects supported by people of the Unionist type.” Whatever else about the Count, O’Brien certainly did not think of him as much of a Nationalist.[4]

In fact, the Count had had a reasonably active time in politics as a Nationalist, and an honourable one at that. This tended to be overlooked, much like how Walsh, O’Shiel and O’Brien were content to discount the man in general. And yet, for a while, it looked as if the post-Rising upheaval would be regarded as the Plunkett Revolution.

Early Years

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Count Plunkett in ceremonial dress

Born in 1851 as a privileged scion of an illustrious name (the 17th century St. Oliver Plunkett was an ancestor), George Noble Plunkett was sent abroad to a Jesuit school in Nice at the age of six. The reason for this was to protect his health and, as he was the only one of his three siblings to survive to adulthood, this may have been a wise precaution.

Recently ceded to France by Italy, Nice was at a cultural crossroads, and there young George grew up fluent in French, Italian and Niçoise. George, according to a flattering write-up in the Catholic Bulletin, was sufficiently immersed in such a cosmopolitan environment to temporarily forget English but he remained, nonetheless, “in feeling intensely Irish.”[5]

This may be a slight exaggeration as he was not to return to Ireland until 1862, aged eleven. Afterwards, though, he would have ample opportunity to show the intensity of these Irish feelings of his.

Even at an early age, his passion for art, literature and other forms of high culture was evident. He became a regular visitor to various art galleries in Europe, and collected a string of presidencies or vice-presidencies at societies such as the Academy of Christian Science, the Royal Irish Academy and the Society of Catholic Poetry.[6]

George soon developed a system on how best to explore a gallery: (1) a visit should never last more than two hours, for past that and mental fatigue sets in, (2) always focus on the best pieces even to the exclusion of the rest (advice he was happy to pass on to anyone interested).[7]

George made his mark on the literary scene when he published a collection of his poetry, God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems in 1877. Many of the poem titles – such as ‘Ave Maria’, ‘The Sleep of the Infant Jesus’ and ‘An Orphan’s Prayer to the Blessed Virgin’ – display a distinctly Catholic sensibility, with the occasional foray into Irish nationalism, such as in ‘To Ireland’, where he laments the subject’s history:

Woe! Woe! That we cannot blot

The records of countless crimes!

For the blood and tears you shed

Leave their strains to the latest times.

But worst of the heartless foes

That his hand hath deep imbed

In the warm hearts-blood of our Nationhood,

Is that monster, Ingratitude.[8]

Another, ‘Erinn’, both celebrates his homeland while hinting at the poet’s status as a world traveller:

Fair is God’s world!

I have wondered it tho’:

Fancy’s unfurled

His best scenes to my view;

When seems the fairest,

Of all the bright earth –

The dearest, the rarest?

The land of my birth!

Golden expanse

Poetized by the Rhine,

Gay land of France,

Repose of wit and of wine,

But one can claim –

Though it hath not the smile

Of Italy – the name

Of the Emerald Isle![9]

Upon reviewing some later poems of Plunkett’s in 1921, the novelist Katherine Tynan summed up the main themes as “two strains – God and Ireland, sometimes single, oftener intermingled.” As Plunkett was then prominently involved in Irish politics, Tyan could not resist making the connection: “In a sense, such poetry…bears witness for Sinn Fein. That the singer of these noble numbers should be of the movement is eloquent.”[10]

One could debate the quality of the poems and perhaps compare them unfavourably to that of his eldest son’s, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose works, such as ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’ and ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight’, are still recited today. George Plunkett’s efforts, on the other hand, have almost entirely receded from public consciousness. As a literary man, his legacy can perhaps be felt through that of Joseph’s, who followed in his father’s footsteps in his ambition to be a poet.

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

Taste and Scholarship

George did not hoard his talents to himself. From 1883 to 1884, he was editor of the Hibernia, a literary journal with a good deal of, in Tynan’s opinion, “taste and scholarship.” As a budding writer herself, Tynan had contributed a couple of her poems. That the Hibernia, alas, did not last long, Tynan attributed to it being “too bookish” for the philistines of Dublin (she remained friends with Plunkett, with him donating a few books for her shelves, and later sent a cheque for copies of her first publication).[11]

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

He had by then married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Cranny (who went by her middle name), in 1884. A fruitful union, the couple went on to produce seven children – four girls and three boys. Their two families had worked closely for years, becoming rich in property together. As a sign of how little money was a concern, George and Josephine were set up a year after their wedding in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the residence having been bought, furnished and decorated by the former’s father.[12]

George could be equally generous with others. The nuns of the Little Company of Mary had been asked by Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to set up a centre in Rome. George happened to be there at the time and in a position to assist with the purchasing and refurbishment of the new convent.

He was rewarded a year later with the title of Papal Count. It was, apparently, something of a “source of great embarrassment and annoyance to him… as an ardent Nationalist he did not like being mistaken for some kind of English or Continental aristocrat” (Josephine, on the other hand, was delighted to be addressed as Countess by friends and servants alike). It was not until he was requested by the Vatican to use the title, and from then on, he was Count Plunkett to the world.[13]

That is, at least, according to his daughter Geraldine, who left a memoir that is revealing in its depiction of the Plunkett home life but also problematic due to her naked prejudices. She adored her father and loathed her mother, and it is thus not surprising that her reminisces frequently leaned in favour of one parent at the expense of the other.

Plunkett Family, 1894
The Plunkett family

For one, Geraldine overlooked how her father was capable of stubborn streaks throughout his life, and it is unlikely that even the Holy Father could have forced him into bearing a title he did not want (he was not above using it for political point-scoring, though – when a rival Nationalist sneered at the title, Plunkett retorted that since it had been awarded by the Pope, any slight on the title was thus a slur against the Vicar of Christ[14]).

Countess Plunkett
Countess Plunkett

Secondly, Geraldine’s depiction of her mother as an insufferable, tight-fisted harridan does not necessarily chime with that of others’. The future Fianna Fáil minister, Todd Andrews, was a regular visitor to the family house after the Civil War, and found the Countess to be “a kind and humorous woman who could laugh at her own oddities.”[15]

But then, Andrews did not have to live with her. George came out of his study one time to find his wife beating their daughter Moya mercilessly with her fists in the hallway, the crime of the wretched girl being to ask her miserly mother to buy her sister Fiona a coat for the winter.

As told by Geraldine, ‘Pa’ Plunkett somehow interpreted the scene as Moya attacking the Countess instead of vice versa, and began thrashing Moya with his walking-stick. Joseph intervened to snatch the stick away and break it over his knee:

Ma took this as a personal insult and redoubled her screaming. Joe comforted Moya while Pa, realising his mistake, stood helplessly patting her on the head to show he was sorry. By the time I came in, Pa had retreated to the study, Ma to the dining-room, and Joe was still trying to comfort poor Moya.[16]

At least Fiona ended up with a new winter-coat after all that.

“You must remember that Mammy is only a little girl,” Plunkett told Geraldine by way of explanation after the latest fight with her mother.[17] An indulgent parent, more a friend than an authority figure to his children, Count Plunkett preferred to avoid household drama – Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett would have understood.

One Missing Plank

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T.D. Sullivan

One source of drama which Count Plunkett did display an interest in was politics; unfortunately, those already in politics did not reciprocate with an interest in him. He wrote to T.D. Sullivan, the Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP), in 1885, asking to be proposed for the Irish National League of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose words Plunkett quoted about how the national platform lacked but “one plank” – with himself presumably being that missing plank.

If Plunkett had been hoping to ingratiate himself with Parnell’s colleagues, then he was in for a rude awakening. Sullivan’s reply could not have been more condescending. Plunkett, he wrote back, must have taken the line about the plank too literally. “It seems to me,” Sullivan continued, “that if that be so, your joining the League might possibly some day bring disappointment to you, and I would not like to be party thereto.”

The main barrier to Plunkett was his hostility towards the Land League, by then supressed and to which the National League was intended to replace, focusing this time on the issue of Home Rule rather than of land distribution like before. Plunkett’s attitude towards the Land League still rankled with Sullivan: “I can well remember how bitterly opposed you were.”

Academic debates, Sullivan warned, were not enough to win Home Rule – which sums up what he thought of the other man’s style. Also, Home Rule would not be the sole focus of the new League. With the issues of land unresolved and requiring their full attention for the moment, Sullivan took “the liberty of suggesting that you should very well consider your course before ‘casting your lot,’ as the saying is, with the leaders of the National League.”[18]

Although stonewalled from politics, Plunkett could not avoid being affected by the ‘Divorce Crisis’ in 1890, which saw Parnell exposed as an adulterer and a political liability. Most of his allies deserted him, including the caustic T.D. Sullivan; one who did not was George Plunkett.

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Katharine Tynan

That the Count would stand by the stricken statesman surprised even the former’s friend, Tynan, who saw him as “one of those trusted Catholic laymen who represented the best and most orthodox Catholic feeling of Dublin” – in other words, a very conventional man. Yet he was prepared to go against the tide when he felt it necessary, a fact that impressed Tynan. Together, they endured the “obloquy, the unjust condemnation, the wrongs”, as she put it, from the Anti-Parnellites (while such words may strike the modern reader as excessively dramatic, events in Mid-Tyrone would show them to be, if anything, understated).[19]

Such unjust obloquy did much to toughen up the Count. In a letter to John Redmond in 1895, Plunkett advised his fellow Parnellite on the best ways to deal with power-brokering clerics such as Dr William Walsh. Redmond was feuding with the Archbishop over stories unflattering to the Church that had appeared in newspapers controlled by the politician. Due to past experience teaching him to “neither fear nor despise the clergy,” Plunkett advised Redmond to moderate such stories, which would hopefully persuade the Archbishop to side with them against their Anti-Parnell rivals.[20]

Such talk sat oddly with his public proofs of piety – in addition to the papal counthood, he amassed an impressive set of papal medals: the Cross of Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, the Grand Cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Cross of the Order of the Advocates of St Peter, and two medals of the Cross of St John of Lateran for him and his wife.[21]

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Papal medals awarded to Count Plunkett

But then, as indicated by his earlier defence of Parnell in the teeth of clerical condemnation – and how his visit to Rome on the eve of the Easter Rising would show – Count Plunkett was quite capable of following his own mind, even where Holy Mother Church was concerned.

Political Pursuits

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Charles Stewart Parnell

Plunkett stayed loyal to Parnell to the end, the latter dropping in to see him before leaving for England in 1891. Unfortunately, the Count was out of the house at the time. After waiting for a long while, Parnell left, saying only as he departed: “Perhaps it is just as well.” He died shortly afterwards. Plunkett, who was already upset at having missed Parnell, mourned him deeply.[22]

From then on, the Count took a more active role in politics, albeit with mixed results. In the 1892 general election, he stood as the Parnellite candidate for Mid-Tyrone, the sundered Irish National League no longer able to be quite so fussy in who it took.

That the Parnellite faction could put forward a candidate at all was a surprise. When the news was announced on posters around the town of Omagh, many Anti-Parnellites were inclined to regard it as a joke. It was not until a delegation of Parnellites left Omagh on the evening of the 18th June to greet their incoming candidate that the matter was confirmed.

The Count arrived in town, with a torchlight procession and the sounds of band music, through streets filled with knots of curious onlookers. Plunkett – “who spoke under difficulties,” according to a local newspaper – explained to the crowd his Party’s stance, which was that of the late Parnell, “the policy which his followers over his grave at Glasnevin had pledged themselves to carry out.” Though an outsider, Plunkett busied himself with paying personal visits around the constituency.[23]

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Omagh, Co. Tyrone

The election was to be a three-way contest. According to Geraldine, her father withdrew in order to support his Anti-Parnellite counterpart, Matthew Joseph Kenny, lest he split the Nationalist vote and allow in a Unionist. However, that is untrue, as the parliamentary records show that he continued to stand and received 123 votes, compared to Kenny’s 3,667 and the Unionist candidate’s 2,590. The best that could be said of such a result is that at least Plunkett’s share was too small to have threatened the other Nationalist.[24]

There was nothing that could be said against Plunkett’s courage, however. While making the electioneering rounds by wagon, his party was attacked upon stopping at the Catholic churchyard of Carrickmore by its Anti-Parnellite congregation when their parish priest recognised the rival candidate (it is unclear if the padre had incited the crowd or merely made his hostility known to them). Plunkett was punched in the mouth and, bleeding heavily, hurried back with his companions to their wagon, on which they narrowly escaped amidst a hail of stones.

Little wonder, then, that after the election results were read out on the 8th July, Plunkett praised his fellow loser, the Unionist candidate, as having behaved honourably, while pointedly omitting Kenny and the conduct of his followers.[25]

At least his time there was not to be a complete waste. Three years later, the poet Alice Milligan asked him for the names of Tyrone Nationalists to help gather interest for her politically-themed publications. Literature, art and culture were always there as consolations for Count Plunkett when politics failed.[26]

St Stephen’s Ward

Plunkett picked himself up from this loss to stand again for Parliament in 1895, this time for the St Stephen’s Green Ward, Dublin, which was at least a more plausible seat than faraway Tyrone. He was also better prepared this time, taking care to announce and explain his candidacy in an open letter to the newspapers:

Fellow-Citizens,

Having been selected by a National Convention to contest your division, I gladly accept the task imposed on me.

I am in complete accord with the Independent [Parnellite] Party. I have always held the Policy of Independence of English Parties to be Ireland’s only hope in the Imperial Parliament.

As I do not seek a seat in Parliament as a stepping-stone to office, I will not subordinate the interests of Ireland to any other interest whatsoever.

As a Catholic, I am in favour of Denominational Education.

I am in favour of Peasant Proprietary for Ireland.

I sympathise warmly with the movement for the release of political prisoners,

I will do all in my power for the welfare of the Irish working man, and for the promotion and protection of Irish industries.

It is now our duty to wrest the St Stephen’s Green Division from the Unionist, and to show by our energy and enthusiasm that Ireland is solid for Home Rule.

To secure the result, upon which such vital interests may depend, EVERY HOME RULE VOTE MUST BE POLLED.

Trusting in your tried fidelity to the Old Cause,

I remain, Fellow-Citizens,

Your faithful servant,

GEORGE NOBLE COUNT PLUNKETT[27]

His support for peasant landownership may have come as a surprise to those who had known his aversion towards the Land League. Everything else was standard Nationalist aspiration, particularly the appeal to Home Rule, even if that was very much dead in the water for the while.

This time Count Plunkett was the sole Nationalist candidate, standing against a Unionist, William Kenny (who, by a strange coincidence, shared the same surname as Plunkett’s archenemy in Mid-Tyrone three years ago, although there was no relation). Still, the election was a tense one, with the Irish Times noting that on polling day:

The aspect of Dublin yesterday was unusual. The air was fully charged with political electricity, and for years past the city has not seen busier or more anxious hours than those of the intervals during which the polling booth remained open.[28]

Plunkett and Kenny were seen putting in their fair shares of electioneering work as they drove around to the various polling stations and encouraged their respective adherents throughout the day. Despite the Count’s efforts, Kenny was to be announced as the victor, beating his Nationalist foe by 3,661 votes to 3,205.[29]

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Portrait of William Kenny as a judge

Further Attempts

Opportunity knocked again for Plunkett the aspiring politician when, three years later, Kenny was appointed a judge, prompting a by-election for St Stephen’s Ward. Once more, Plunkett was defeated by a Unionist candidate, though the results were closer this time – 3,525 to 3,387.[30]

The cause for this second defeat was attributed by Nationalist critics to a system whereby “lodgers” – the sons of local Unionists – who normally lived in England could stay in their families’ homes in Dublin for a minimum of twelve months to count as lodgers and thus vote in the elections.

Polling day had been notably skittish. Even before the results were known, Plunkettite canvassers were handing out cards objecting to the unfair odds against them. “Notice to Lodger voters take notice,” they read, “That the vote of every person who is registered as a lodger, and who has not signed his claim himself, is objected to, and if necessary, will be objected to on a petition.”

Large placards to the same effect were put up around the constituency. The rebellious mood spread to the polling booths. In Pembroke, a polling clerk made himself conspicuous by pestering ‘lodger’ voters with questions like “What rent do you pay?” Another clerk of Nationalist sympathies attempted to stop a voter on the grounds that he had already left the house for which his name was on the register. The voter, however, insisted on his rights and his contribution to the ballot was duly noted.

The military authorities had caught wind of the tension. To avoid the risk of further unrest, they confined their troops stationed nearby to their barracks for the duration of the poll. Those soldiers entitled to vote were allowed passes to leave on condition that they return at once when done.[31]

Stymied yet again, Plunkett at least had found a cause to work on, and he campaigned for two years to change these rigged electoral procedures. His efforts bore fruit by 1900 when a Nationalist candidate finally took St Stephen’s Ward at 3,429 votes to the Unionist’s 2,873.[32]

The Count had not stood that time. Geraldine attributed his withdrawal from politics to the mutual dislike between him and John Redmond, leader of the reunited Irish Party, not to mention the opposition of his hard-headed wife (who held the purse-strings) to any more expensive elections.[33]

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John Redmond

Corroborating this explanation are letters by John Redmond, one from 1896 in which he regretfully – but nonetheless quite firmly – declined to pay for the expenses incurred by Plunkett as part of the unsuccessful election for St Stephen’s Ward the previous year. The Count made one last push for reimbursement in 1902, but received the same rebuff from Redmond, who pleaded money shortages – “It is not a fact I am sorry to say that the National Organisations are well provided with funds” – and ended with how he saw “great difficulty in dealing with the matter satisfactorily to you.”[34]

For all his hard work and money spent, Plunkett had not progressed in the Irish Party from anything higher than a hanger-on. The professional politicians who the Count had aspired to join had had a use for him before, and now, with the Party reunited, they did not.

Cultural Pursuits

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Sandro Botticelli, self-portrait

Frustrated, Plunkett threw himself into his studies, in particular the writing of a scholarly work on Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter about whom he felt strongly enough to name one of his dogs after. The Renaissance in general was a topic close to his heart; his favourite reading material being, besides the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Todd Andrews was invited to inspect the Count’s considerable library, he was too distracted by the “splendid collection” of books on Renaissance art to investigate the rest of the shelves.[35]

Published in 1900, Sandro Botticelli was a success, and earned its author a string of honorary memberships at the Academy of St Luke in Rome, the Academy of the Fine Arts in Florence, and the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi al Pantheon.[36]

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Plunkett went from strength to strength in 1907 when he was made Director of the National Museum. He would regard it as much a calling as a job, and as work in service to the nation. “To my mind a museum is more than a system,” he told a conference of the Museums’ Association in 1912. “It is a part of the national life, it is an expression of the national life and of the higher qualities of the people to whom it belongs.”

One cause for development was that, while the Museum had many ancient objects from Ireland – “We are fortunate in having the greatest collection of Celtic antiquities in Europe,” as he put it – the exhibitions were lacking in later items: “There is the long period during the occupation of Ireland by the English, which is hardly represented at all. We have works of extraordinary beauty extending down as far as the thirteenth century, but then occurs this gap which we have hitherto been unable to fill.” And it was important that this gap in question be filled, “so that our people may be in a position to realise vividly the elements of their own past.”[37]

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National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

Equipped with this vision and passion, Plunkett thrived, as did the Museum, such as when he succeeded in dramatically increasing attendance levels from a hundred students in one year to three thousand in another. A theatre room was built, where the Director took the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, and used the venue to deliver lectures of his own.

“To have had lessons on art history from a master such as Count Plunkett does not fall to the lot of many,” was how an appreciative Andrews described his time with him.[38]

He was to remain in that happy role for nine years until the Easter Week of 1916 threw the country into turmoil and uprooted his quiet, orderly life. It was an upset he had had some small hand in.

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Count Plunkett at study

A Family Affair

By the time of the Rising, the Plunkett family had already been steeped in the sort of politics that Dublin Castle had tried to tempt the Count out of with its National Gallery offer. The clan patriarch was preoccupied with the demands of running his museum (there was no doubt that it was ‘his’), and so it was the new generation who led the charge.

In November 1913, Joseph, saw a notice in certain newspapers, calling a meeting to organise an Irish Volunteer force in order to ensure and, if necessary, fight for the passing of the Home Rule Bill The notice was signed by Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League.

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Joseph was intrigued but, stricken with tuberculosis as he was, not think much of his chances of being accepted, plaintively asking his sister Geraldine: “Do you think I could be of any use? I’m afraid I won’t be able to do very much.”

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

Geraldine encouraged him to try anyway. After an encouraging talk with MacNeill, Joseph attended the meeting, held on the 25th in a skating rink at the back of the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. Much to his surprise, Joseph found himself on the platform and nominated to the Provisional Committee of the newly-founded Irish Volunteers, under the chairmanship of MacNeill and in the company of other soon-to-be celebrated men such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.

Joseph returned home excited and not a little confused by his sudden elevation, which Geraldine attributed to his friendships with insiders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), some of whom were also on the committee. In time, he would be inducted into that oath-bound secret society and, later, its Military Council (which also included Pearse and MacDonagh).

This was despite not being, as his brother Jack admitted, the most practical of people (few in the family were, their mother notwithstanding), his talents instead lying with the suggestion of ideas that others could then implement.[39]

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Thomas MacDonagh

Personal connections also played a role. Joseph had met MacDonagh when the latter was hired in 1909 to tutor him for exams. His resultant low marks did not stop the two from developing a friendship. Both shared literary and poetic tastes, and the pair worked together on the Irish Review magazine, of which MacDonagh was editor. MacDonagh might also have been the one to introduce Joseph to fellow poet Pearse, possibly in 1910 or 1911, making the Military Council sometimes seem like the continuation of the same social circle.[40]

The other Plunkett siblings were not to be left out. Though still a schoolboy, Jack also joined the Volunteers, later working full-time on Joseph’s staff. His main duties were the rigging of wireless radios, at which he admitted to being largely unsuccessful (Jack was still the most technically-minded Plunkett, and in later years would indulge in his hobby of tinkering with motor-car engines).[41]

For her part, Geraldine made to join Cumann na mBan, but was dissuaded by Joseph. Unwilling to risk letters or telephones, her older brother wanted her to relay messengers on his behalf to his co-conspirators, a role which would be easier to perform without attracting the notice of Dublin Castle detectives if she was unknown to them.[42]

Secrecy became the watchword of the day. Jack only learnt years later that he and the third Plunkett brother, George Oliver, had worked on the same project – he could not remember which – despite the two of them living under the same roof. It was not until Easter Week, when the brothers were holed up together in the GPO, that Joseph felt comfortable enough to talk to Jack about certain, previously hush-hush matters.[43]

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Jack Plunkett

Larkfield

The family property at Larkfield in Kimmage, south of Dublin, was utilised into a base for the younger Plunketts as they became more involved in radical politics. Consisting of twelve acres of land, with yards, paddocks, an old farm and a mill, complete with a “beautiful middle-sized house…and a garden full of roses,” Larkfield had originally been purchased by the Countess for the family (one of the few times Geraldine was prepared to concede when her mother had not been a complete ogress).

Larkfield

Given the poor state of Joseph’s health, it was easier for his IRB partners to visit him in Larkfield as he had taken to living there along with the rest of the family. Their paterfamilias was the last to join them, and 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street was left to store his books, receive mail but otherwise gather dust. The Count soon settled into a pleasant routine of heading off to the Museum for a day’s work before walking back to Kimmage from the tram at Harold’s Cross.[44]

He was presumably unconcerned about the growing number of young men on the Larkfield property. Unsettled by the threat of conscription, these newcomers had departed from Britain, intending to fight at home for their country rather than in France for another.

“Suddenly one morning about forty young men descended on us,” was how Geraldine remembered the beginning of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, as they became known by. The numbers of this impromptu company swelled to approximately ninety members, fresh off the boat from cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.

They were kept busy with military drills in between the manufacture of munitions, namely shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades. One member proudly recounted how, on a peak night, they could produce up to five thousand lead pellets and twenty grenades, sometimes working twenty-four hour shifts.[45]

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Members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’

Joseph’s work on the Military Council intensified. After Christmas 1915, he told Geraldine that he was off to Germany, which she assumed was for the purpose of procuring weapons. He entrusted his sister with the cipher he would use in any letters sent, to be passed on to her via a cousin and then forwarded to Pearse or another of the conspirators.

He did not trust his mother as much, telling her only that he was leaving for the Continent. In an insight into the complicated dynamics of the household, Joseph changed his mind and informed the Countess that he was going on Volunteer business that might take him to Germany. When Geraldine asked him why “on God’s earth he had done such a thing,” he replied that their mother, adept at prying as she was, would have found out anyway.[46]

Count Plunkett’s involvement, if any, goes unstated in Geraldine’s memoir until early April 1916, when the reader learns of him being sworn into the IRB by Joseph. Geraldine did not record her father’s thoughts on the matter, only that “he was very pleased that his son was now his superior officer.”[47]

But Pa Plunkett was not to be just another ordinary member, for his son had a very particular mission in mind for his new subordinate.

His Holiness

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W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

On Easter Sunday, W.J. Brennan-Whitmore was preparing for the start of the uprising in Dublin when he was informed by his commanding officer, Thomas MacDonagh, that Count Plunkett had just returned from Rome, bringing with him the blessing of the Pope for their venture. While pleased to hear such news, Brennan-Whitmore could not help but wonder, just a little, for “it seemed unusual,” and he was still not wholly convinced by the time he penned his memoirs years later.[48]

Brennan-Whitmore was not the only one uncertain, and it was to answer such doubts that Count Plunkett told his side of the story in a brief article for the Irish Press newspaper in 1933:

I have heard that it is denied that I went to Rome immediately before the Rising of 1916 to communicate with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. I had no desire to publish information that at the time was not intended for the Press; but now I must disclose certain facts in the interest of truth.

Why he had waited so long before revealing all was left unstated. A need for secrecy seems unlikely, given the length of time that had passed, not to mention how participation in the Rising rapidly became a badge of honour (and political asset) in the months that followed. That the Count had managed for seventeen years to refrain from publicising his role in the most celebrated rebellion in national history – despite the advantages it would have brought to his subsequent career as a Republican firebrand – was an impressive act of restraint in itself.

About three weeks before the Rising, I was, through my son Joseph, commissioned by the Executive of the Irish Volunteers (the Provisional Government) to act as their Envoy on the Continent.[49]

According to Geraldine (whose account fills in some of the gaps in her father’s), Joseph had heard news of the visit of the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, to the Vatican. Concerned that His Holiness might be pressured or persuaded to instruct his Irish bishops to condemn any rebellion, Joseph decided that his father would make the best emissary to plead their case. As a papal count, he was, after all, entitled to such an audience.[50]

One task given to me I needed not particular here. When it was carried out, I went onto Rome, according to my instructions.

The task in question was to send a communication to Germany where Sir Roger Casement was attempting to solicit aid for the rebels. The Count was to memorise the message (papers being too vulnerable to carry around) before sending it from neutral Switzerland en route to Italy. Again, it is unclear as to why he felt the need to omit this detail – perhaps he was simply concerned about the length of the article.[51]

Having arrived at his destination, the Count was granted his audience with Pope Benedict:

For nigh on two hours we discussed freely the question of the coming struggle for Irish independence. The Pope was much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed and the reason for that decision. Finally, I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred His Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland’s liberty.

The wording makes it sound as if Plunkett was handing the country over on a silver platter. Most likely, he was reassuring the Pope that the insurgents had no distastefully left-leaning, anti-clerical or – God forbid – socialist tendencies.

(Such consideration for papal sensitivity was not untypical. Four years later, Sean T. O’Kelly stressed to the same pontiff that “as practising Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.”[52])

The article also gives the impression that the Pope took all of this in with serene acceptance. Plunkett gave a more dramatic version to Geraldine, in which the Vicar of Christ bestowed his blessing with tears of sympathy pouring down his face.[53]

Monsignor Curran’s record of what the Count had told him on Easter Monday was less striking but perhaps more likely. Here, Benedict XV comes across as noticeably circumspect upon being asked to approve of a venture that had just been sprung on him:

The Pope showed great perturbation and asked was there no peaceful way out of the difficulty…Count Plunkett answered every question, making it plain that it was the will of the leaders of the movement to act entirely with the good-will or approval – I forget which now – of the Pope and to give an assurance that they wished to act as Catholics. It was for that reason they came to inform his Holiness. All the Pope could do was express his profound anxiety.[54]

One consistent detail in the different versions is how Plunkett informed the Pope that the date of the uprising was fixed, leaving the latter with no chance at dissuasion. It was the same Machiavellian deference he would apply when dropping in to see Archbishop Walsh. The Count may have been a man of a lofty intellect and cultured tastes, but he was also capable of low cunning when it was called for.

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Pope Benedict XV

The Rising

Count Plunkett finished his article with his return to Ireland, just in time for the big event:

Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent in my report on the results of my mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916.

According to Geraldine, her father arrived back in Ireland on Holy Thursday and spent the remaining four days before the Rising travelling around the country to meet with various bishops to request that they also refrain from condemnation. Geraldine thought he visited five bishops altogether, but Monsignor Curran was not aware of any of this when he saw the Count on Easter Monday, and it is hard to believe that these other bishops would not have passed word to the Archbishop of Dublin beforehand.

Count Plunkett omitted his talk with Curran in his 1933 article and also how afterwards, according to Geraldine, he had made his way to the GPO, with the Rising unfolding all around, to ask Joseph to take him on as another Volunteer. Recognising that a 65-year old man did not make for an credible soldier, Joseph told his father that they had enough men inside already and instead sent him home.[55]

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The General Post Office (GPO), Dublin

In the meantime, the members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ had been preparing themselves. Pearse had addressed them a week before, urging them to be ready. His enthusiasm was infectious and the men looked forward to Easter Sunday when they would finally see action.

When Sunday came, the ‘Garrison’ was assembled and armed when a car pulled up at Larkfield with the news that the operation was cancelled.

The following day saw the men in a sullen mood. Before, they had been early risers to a man but now they did nothing but lounge about. The only flicker of interest was in the talk of heading into town to start their own insurrection, orders and countermands be damned.

It was sometime before noon when a whistle blew, calling the ‘Garrison’ into line. George Oliver Plunkett, the 22-year old younger brother of Joseph, had been placed in charge – no one seemed perturbed by such nepotism – and was now wearing, according to one of his subordinates, “a broad, proud, confident smile.”[56]

George read out a dispatch, saying they were to parade at Liberty Hall. To the men, this could mean only one thing: they would have their Rising after all. Enthusiasm overrode discipline as they broke ranks and ran to gather their weapons.

Now prepared, the Volunteers marched to where they boarded a tram (their fares paid for by a considerate George) and were taken to the city centre, where they disembarked at O’Connell Street. Making their way to Liberty Hall, they saw Joseph waiting for them outside. He was, as one of them recalled, “beautifully dressed, having high tan boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.”[57]

Family Matters

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Grace Gifford

It had been a turbulent few days for Joseph as he tried balancing the imminent rebellion with his love life. His fiancée, Grace Gifford, remembered him in high spirits the previous week. Things took a darker turn on the Saturday when Michael Collins visited her at home to deliver, on Joseph’s behalf, a revolver and money, one to fight with and the other to bribe a British soldier if needs be. Grace did not know of which to be more frightened.

When she saw her betrothed the next day, he was “wretched looking”, having skipped the nursing home he was due to check into. Afterwards, Grace could not recall what they had talked about, not even if it was about their wedding, for they were due at the altar the next day, alongside his sister Geraldine and her nuptials in the same church.

Grace and he had been discussing marriage dates for some time. Joseph had suggested Lent which Grace, as a newly converted Catholic, was against. She suggested Easter instead, but Joseph at first resisted on the grounds that “we may be having a revolution then.”[58]

Though Grace and Joseph would not have their wedding until they were in a prison cell, hours before the latter was due to be executed, Geraldine plunged ahead with her own on Easter Sunday. The happy couple cycled to the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street for the night.

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The following morning, Geraldine watched from the hotel window with her new husband as uniformed Volunteers advanced up the street and halted in front of the GPO. She recognised her brothers, Joseph and George, the older accompanied by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, as they and their men set to work constructing barricades.

One Volunteer tried to drive an abandoned tram into another but failed to pick up the necessary speed. Instead, Joseph threw a Larkfield-made bomb into the vehicle and shot it with his pistol from about thirty yards away – “a beautiful shot,” as Geraldine remembered. The shot detonated the bomb, mangling the tram and rendering it a perfect obstacle.

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Wrecked tram at Bridgefoot Street, Dublin, 1916

This was the last time Geraldine would see her brother. When she tried talking her way into the GPO, she was told on behalf of Joseph to go home as the building was already full up. It was the same line Joseph gave his father. He may have been willing to risk his own life but he drew a line at certain family members.[59]

Prison

Count Plunkett was arrested on the 1st May, two days after the collapse of the Rising. His experiences were described in two short documents: a pencil manuscript in the Count’s hand in the first person, and a typescript in the third, possibly intended for publication.

The Count was in his Upper Fitzwilliam Street residence when a body of soldiers demanded admittance. Despite their lack of a warrant, Plunkett decided that compliance was the wisest course. The men searched the house, breaking open desks and spilling their contents onto the floor, while taking the opportunity to pocket a number of items, including the Count’s prized collection of papal medals.

Also seized were two historical dress-swords which the Count had labelled for loan to the Museum. Plunkett was unaware of these thefts at the time as the only item officially taken was a third ceremonial sword that came with his uniform as Director. The soldiers also tried to get him to admit to having guns in the house but he insisted there was none.

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Count Plunkett’s wrecked study following the search by soldiers

Their search complete, the soldiers arrested Plunkett and took him in an iron-sided van to Dublin Castle. There, he was brought to a small, dirty cell, occupied by twenty others, where they spent the night. His roommates were a mixed bunch, some being “men of education” like himself, others having been arrested for looting. A few were injured, indicating that they had played a part in the recent fighting.

“I cannot” – at this point, the manuscript broke off. The typescript continued the unhappy narration. After a breakfast of canned ‘bully beef’, stale biscuits and tea served in cans, the prisoners were ordered out and marched through the streets to Richmond Barracks, “being subject to insult by the military and the disreputable camp-followers on the way.”

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Prisoners being marched by British soldiers after the Rising

Upon reaching the Barracks, they were again crammed, twenty-seven of them, into a space intended for eleven. As before, their confinements were filthy despite the presence of wounded men who received no special consideration (one fellow prisoner who shared the cell with Plunkett corroborated the crowded squalor of their confinement, and how the prisoners discovered that a pair of boots could make a much-welcomed pillow[60]).

For nearly a week, the prisoners were left to sleep on bare floorboards. Sometimes it was so cold that even the weariest were kept awake through the night. Mealtimes were a drudge of hard biscuits, ‘bully beef’ and black tea, assuaged only when the guards were bribed for food from outside. The Count – or least the document – made the claim that he broke three teeth on a biscuit, but as this is mentioned nowhere else, it was probably untrue.

Things improved somewhat when their treatment was publicised in the newspapers, and the medical staff warned of a fever outbreak should conditions remain as they were. The prisoners were first given rugs to lie on. Sanitary arrangements improved. Food became at least tolerable.

After a fortnight, the Count was finally granted a bed; a hard one, but better than the floorboards. He began receiving visits from his family except his wife, who had been arrested in turn two days after him, a fact he had been previously unaware of.

Twice he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and brought out to the grounds where a court-martial had been convened, apparently for a session, but each time he was sent back, still untried. At least such outings allowed him to see Joseph, George and Jack, also waiting as prisoners. A soldier later said within earshot that all three had been shot. Another clarified a few days later that George and Jack had ‘only’ been sentenced to ten years. All their father could glimpse of the pair was from a window before they were dispatched to Portland Prison in England.[61]

wm_prisoners_m
Prisoners under guard in Richmond Barracks

He had already witnessed his eldest son on the day of Joseph’s court-martial, standing in the square of Richmond Barracks, from a first storey window. The two looked at each other for a long while before Joseph was moved on, soon to be before a firing-squad. The Count was weeping as he told this to Geraldine: “Even after the executions, it was not thought right to weep openly, but Pa did, and it was one of the reasons I loved him.”[62]

Visitors’ Hours

For all the hardship, Count Plunkett did his best to stay in good humour. A friendly priest, Father Eugene Nevin, visited him in Kilmainham, finding the “dear old man in a small white-washed room, the only furniture of any kind being what looked like a large soap box on which he sat reading the last evening’s Mail.”

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Bishop Edward O’Dwyer

Not only could Plunkett greet his visitor with a smile, but he was soon laughing out loud, finding much merriment in the published correspondence between the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and General Maxwell. Bishop O’Dwyer had replied to Maxwell’s requests for cooperation with a notably acerbic pen, and Plunkett could at least vicariously enjoy the Bishop’s defiance of the man who had overseen Joseph’s execution two weeks before.[63]

Another source of humour, albeit of a black kind, was a piece of pantomime by him and his fellow prisoners. Plunkett played the role of judge in a mock-trial of Éamon de Valera, awaiting his own court-martial in Kilmainham, who was ‘charged’ with conspiring to become King of the Periwinkles and Emperor of the Muglins.

Everyone present would have known of similar ‘trials’ performed by the imprisoned Young Irelanders after their own failed uprising almost seventy years before. Despite the intent of the charade to relieve some of the tension, de Valera could not help but be unsettled, particularly when the onlookers took the game a little too far by clapping their hands to imitate the sound of a firing squad.[64]

But such diversions could not hold off the reality of the situation indefinitely. When Geraldine was able to visit her father on the 8th May, a week after his arrest, she was shocked by what she saw:

We were taken upstairs to a guardroom where Pa was alone, sitting on the bed. I hardly recognised him. He had been arrested more than a fortnight before and was extremely dirty and miserable and more pleased to see the soap and towel than the food. His beard had practically all fallen off and although he was only sixty-five, he looked eighty-five, a poor tired old man.[65]

Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that his attempts at poetry, composed on scraps of paper and spare envelopes, should have a suitably anguished tone:

My foes are many, my friends are but few,

But who can measure my joy in my treasure,

My God, my Heaven, by baby Jesú,

O sleep, sleep deep, my joy, my treasure,

O sleep, my baby, my baby Jesú.[66]

The Countess was having it no better. Another woman imprisoned at Mountjoy in the cell next to Josephine’s remembered her being “in a terrible state about her son having been executed, and she used to get awfully lonely and upset at night.” Talking to each other through the wall brought at least a measure of comfort.[67]

Exile

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Count and Countess Plunkett

Relief came for the pair when they were both notified on the 5th June that they could be released on condition of signing a form, agreeing to deportation to a place in England of their choice. Both signed, with Oxfordshire decided as their destination. They were reunited at Upper Fitzwilliam Street and spent four days there before leaving the country on the 9th, taking their daughter Fiona with them.

As part of their agreement, the couple promised to “abstain from making any speeches or attending or taking part, directly or indirectly, in any political or other demonstration or meeting before leaving Ireland.” They also agreed not to return home without written permission from the Home Secretary or the military authorities.[68]

Exactly why either of them had been arrested at all is unclear. Unlike their sons, they had not been arrested at the scene of an armed uprising. Neither had held leadership positions or any rank among the Irish Volunteers. The lack of a court-martial or trial means that whatever evidence the authorities had against the couple, as well the  reasons for detaining two aging non-combatants in the first place, will remain unknown.

The exiles arrived in London on the morning of the 10th before pressing on to Oxford. Count Plunkett attended Mass the following day before getting down to business and writing to the Prime Minister and later the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting (there is no indication that either replied, however).

Always ready to balance politics with his craft, he sent copies of some verse to a number of Irish publications. Hinting at his state of mind was the title of one: ‘O Blessed Gift of Poverty’.[69]

While their Oxford lodgings were a far cry from the luxurious residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street or the idyllic surroundings of Larkfield, materially the couple could have been worse. A natural entrepreneur, the Countess crafted furniture to sell and, though Geraldine snidely commented on their quality in her memoirs, she made enough to cover the rent and shopping (the latter task falling to Fiona). For home fires, the family made do with old newspapers and lumps of sugar.[70]

Still, the future looked bleak. They were to be dispossessed for an indefinite period, many of their belongings in Dublin had been stolen, and their eldest son was dead with the other two were about to embark on lengthy penal sentences. The National Museum lay over a burnt bridge, the Count having received notice of his suspension as its director. His position would “be determined upon the receipt of a Report from the Military Authorities,” which made any chance of reclamation an unlikely one.[71]

As if to rub salt into the wounds, Count Plunkett, who had chosen Oxford for access to its famous Bodleian Library, had his application for a library ticket refused.[72]

Continued in: Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, 1917 (Part II)

References

[1] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 53-55

[2] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part V) p. 7

[3] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 210

[4] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1776), p. 108

[5] Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917, p. 53

[6] Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992), p. 77

[7] Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 43

[8] Plunkett, G.N. God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems (Dublin: John Mullany, 1877), p. 41

[9] Ibid, p. 55

[10] Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review (1921) Vol. X, No. 40, p. 662

[11] Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913), pp. 128, 167

[12] Laffan, pp. 7-9

[13] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 22, 30

[14] Tyrone Constitution, 08/07/1892

[15] Andrews, p. 49

[16] Plunkett Dillon, p. 125

[17] Ibid, 96

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,374/3/7

[19] Tynan, p. 383

[20] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,376/1/9

[21] NLI, MS 11,381/4/2

[22] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 32-3

[23] Tyrone Constitution, 01/07/1892

[24] Plunkett Dillon, p. 33 ; Walker, Brian M. (ed.) Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), p. 149

[25] Tyrone Constitution, 15/07/1892

[26] NLI, MS 11,374/7/2

[27] Irish Times, 08/07/1895

[28] Ibid, 17/07/1895

[29] Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, p. 153

[30] Ibid, p. 157

[31] Irish Times, 22/01/1898

[32] Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, p. 160

[33] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 34-35

[34] NLI, MS 11,374/7/6, MS 11,374/9/4

[35] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 31, 60 ; Andrews, p. 42

[36] Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917

[37] Irish Monthly, Vol. XL, pp. 608-12, November 1912

[38] Laffan, p. 13 ; Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917, p. 56 ; Andrews, p. 43

[39] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 153-4 ;  Plunkett, Jack (BMH / WS 488), pp. 2-3

[40] Plunkett, Jack, p. 2

[41] Plunkett, Jack, p. 12 ; Andrews, p. 42

[42] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 155-6

[43] Plunkett, Jack, pp. 20, 32

[44] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 151, 188, 201

[45] Ibid, p. 100 ; Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 5-6, 8

[46] Plunkett Dillon, p. 176

[47] Ibid, p. 211

[48] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. (introduction and notes by Travers, Pauric) Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), p. 29

[49] Irish Press, 26/05/1933

[50] Plunkett Dillon, p. 211

[51] Ibid

[52] ‘Memorandum by Sean T. O’Ceallaigh to Pope Benedict XV’, 18/05/1920, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, http://www.difp.ie/docs/1920/Appeal-to-Vatican/35.htm  (Accessed 21/02/2017)

[53] Plunkett Dillon, p. 211

[54] Curran, p. 54

[55] Plunkett Dillon, p. 227

[56] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 156), p. 14

[57] Good, pp. 7-8

[58] Plunkett, Grace, (BMH / WS 257, pp. 7-10

[59] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 222-3, 226

[60] Daly, Seamus (BMH / WS 360), p. 56

[61] NLI, MS 11,381/4/2, MS 11,381/4/3

[62] Plunkett Dillon, p. 238

[63] Nevin, Eugene (BMH / WS 1605), p. 53

[64] Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera – Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Random House, 1993), p. 76

[65] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 237-8

[66] NLI, MS 11,399

[67] Ibid, MS 11,381/4/1 ; Lynn, Kathleen (BMH / WS 357), p. 11

[68] NLI, MS 11,381/6/1

[69] NLI, MS 11,381/4/3

[70] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 251-2

[71] NLI, MS 11,374/14/3

[72] Plunkett Dillion, pp. 246, 252

Bibliography

Bureau of Military Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Daly, Seamus, WS 360

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Lynn, Kathleen, WS 357

Nevin, Eugene, WS 1605

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Plunkett, Grace, WS 257

Plunkett, Jack, WS 488

Robinson, Séumas, WS 156

Books

Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. (introduction and notes by Travers, Pauric) Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996)

Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera – Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Random House, 1993)

Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992)

Plunkett, G.N. God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems (Dublin: John Mullany, 1877)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913)

Walker, Brian M. (ed.) Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978)

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Tyrone Constitution

Journals

Catholic Bulletin

Irish Monthly

Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review

 

Online Source

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy