Ouroboros Eating Its Tail: The Irish Party against Sinn Féin in a New Ireland, 1917

Memories of Mountjoy

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‘The prisoner’

Seán Milroy, governor of Mountoy Prison, was surprised at the sight of the latest inmate – a stout, elderly man – brought before him in his office. “Something very bad was wrong with him evidently,” Milroy noted. “He was extremely restless, moving his arms about in a jerky, spasmodic fashion, and rolling his eyes in an awful way.”

The prisoner’s name, when Milroy asked the warden in attendance, was John Redmond, who had been proving to be a bother, pacing up and down his cell while shouting slogans like: “Poor little Belgium! Charters of liberty! The Allies! The Empire. The Huns!”

As if to demonstrate, Redmond grew even more agitated in front of Milroy, yelling out: “Disgruntled cranks! Factionists! German gold!” and words to that effect.

This behaviour worsened as the warden tried calming him, and Milroy rang the bell on his desk for assistance. It was then that the ‘governor’ woke up from his daydream, his role-reversing fantasy of himself in the position of authority, with his political opponents humbled before him, and not, as he really was, a prisoner in Mountjoy.[1]

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Seán Milroy

At least Milroy – a “well-known Sinn Feiner”, according to a contemporary newspaper report – could take solace in that he was nearing the end of his three-month sentence, from June to September 1915, for “having used language likely to discourage recruiting for His Majesty’s Army” in a public speech. He did not record his time behind bars, spent in the company of like-minded prisoners such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows, until two years later, in 1917, by which time the country was in a very different state, indeed.[2]

Nationalist Ireland had turned on itself, like Ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, one end consuming the other. It was now no longer necessary to imagine the degradation of Redmond, on whose shoulders the hopes of Irish self-rule had once rested. The mere sight of him as he left Trinity College, Dublin, in mid-1917, incited boos from the small crowd outside the front gate.

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Ouroboros

The jeers grew louder, as the hecklers followed Redmond up Westmoreland Street, prompting some civic-minded passers-by to form a protective ring around the beleaguered politician. Even so, it was only after he hurried inside the first building to hand for refuge that the danger could be said to have passed.

“I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to Redmond,” remembered one witness, “I would have joined in.” To sixteen-year-old Todd Andrews and many others in Sinn Féin, Redmond was “the epitome of politicians in general, and all politicians were regarded as low, dirty and treacherous.”[3]

Divine Law

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T.P. O’Connor

It was not for want of trying on Redmond’s part. On the 7th March 1917, he and rest of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tried to break the impasse over Home Rule, its long-cherished project, when T.P. O’Connor, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Scotland, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on that august assembly “without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised.”[4]

David Lloyd George declined. Or rather, the Prime Minister declared that Home Rule was there for the parts of Ireland which wanted it. But, in regards to the remainder, those who were Irishmen in name while being, as he put it, “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen” – no, Home Rule was not something he would force on them.

These ‘alien’ exceptions were the Unionists, who had shifted from opposing Home Rule in its entirety to demanding that various counties be given the option of remaining outside the jurisdiction of any new Dublin parliament, answerable only to the one at Westminster, just as before. As these Unionists were concentrated largely in Ulster, such allowances would amount in practice to the exclusion of those six counties in the north-east corner of the island.

Perfect from the Ulster Unionists’ point of view but political suicide for Redmond should this Partition happen on his watch. Unfortunately for the Irish Party, such passions were beyond the ability of Englishmen to relate to.

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Ulster Unionist postcard

“We often cut up counties in England without engaging in civil war,” Harold Spender, a pro-Home Rule journalist, wrote to Redmond on the 29th March 1917. “There is no divine law against moving a county landmark.”[5]

Divine law or not, that even a sympathetic individual like Spender could be so obtuse did not bode well for the IPP’s chances of rallying enough support to halt Partition. Yet all its MPs could do was try their best.

(Not) Answering the Irish Question

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David Lloyd George

When T.P. O’Connor dined with Lloyd George on the 22nd January 1917, his lobbying made little headway. To O’Connor’s dismay, the Prime Minister appeared to have spared Home Rule little thought beforehand, being content with Partition as the only credible solution. He was more interested in the possibility of conscription for Ireland in order to solve the need for manpower on the Western Front, a policy which O’Connor was keen to stress as a debacle in the making.

While Lloyd George continuously reassured O’Connor, over the course of their meal together, of his desire to remain on tight terms with his Irish allies, his actions were to fall short of his words, especially if they risked offending the Ulster Unionist presence in Parliament.[6]

Not that Redmond could afford to give up. “I hope you will read this as it is from a friend,” wrote his brother, William, to the Prime Minister, on the 4th March 1917, three days before their showdown in Westminster. The MP for East Clare began with an attempt to rekindle warm memories: “When you entered the House I was then an old member. We fought many battles on the same side.”

As the letter went on, a slight edge of pleading crept in:

I do not want anything from you but this – to settle the Irish question – you are strong enough. Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain.

William Redmond ended with a stark warning: “If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.”[7]

“There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” Lloyd George wrote back two days later, on the 6th March. After all, as he pointed out: “I was elected to the House purely as a Home Rule candidate…and I have voted steadily for Home Rule ever since.”

154Which was true enough. But he clearly did not feel the same urgency as William Redmond, nor thought the matter as simple to solve as the other man seemed to: “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question, and if any man can show me a way out of that I should indeed be happy.”[8]

In other words: my hands are tied, so too bad.

Miracles and the Lack of

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William Redmond

Appropriately enough, after his efforts in private had been exhausted, it was William Redmond who publicly made the case before Parliament for immediate and unconditional Home Rule. He looked every bit his fifty-five years, much of which had been spent in the service of his country.

“Major Redmond’s hair is white now, and he has lost much of his boyish air,” wrote one observer. “The war has deeply lined his face, and his eyes are more deeply set than in his political swashbuckling days.”[9]

Dressed in khaki, as befitting his rank of major in the British Army, he had stood to second T.P. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th March. To Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, “that debate will always be remembered by those who heard it for one speech” and that was William Redmond’s.[10]

At a length of half an hour, his piece was a relatively short one by the standards of the chamber. In place of the quantity of words, however, William Redmond made up for in quality. Dark and bitter mistakes had been made in the past, and not all on one side, he conceded, but there was no point in brooding on the past.

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Edward Carson

Instead, he appealed directly to Edward Carson to meet with his Nationalist opposites – for the sake of the future and for the Irishmen who were, even now, fighting and dying together in the same trenches – so they could come to some arrangement on the basis of self-government for their shared island.

If safeguards were what the Ulster Unionists wanted, then Redmond promised to go to any lengths necessary to reassure them, even if that included – he suggested tantalisingly – the acceptance of a Prime Minister from Ulster to head the first Irish Government.[11]

While there were other speeches that day, William Redmond’s was the one that counted as far as many were concerned. O’Connor could hear the heavy breathing of his fellow MPs seated around him, while others who watched from the gallery – so he was told afterwards – were so overcome with emotion that they wept and sobbed unabashedly.[12]

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Stephen Gwynn

Gwynn was similarly awed. “It was a speech, in short, that made one believe in impossibilities,” as he put it, “but in Parliament no miracles happen.”[13]

When it was clear to the chamber that Lloyd George was no closer than before in supporting an all-Ireland settlement, with Ulster included, John Redmond rose to deliver the piece de resistance of the day. The Prime Minister, he declared, had brought Ireland face to face with revolution. From now on, the country would have to be governed with an unsheathed sword and, as such, it was pointless to continue the debate.

And, with that, reported the Irish Times:

The Nationalists cheered to the echo as their leader left his seat and stalked majestically down the gangway, and along the floor of the House. They followed him, shouting and jeering as they went, while members looked on with serious faces.[14]

If nothing else, the Irish Party still knew how to make an exit. Not that it made any real difference.

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Joe Devlin

When O’Connor and Joe Devlin, the MP for West Belfast, met Lloyd George later in the month, on the 28th March, time had done nothing to change the Prime Minister’s mind. “LG says that the Orangemen still insist on the 6 counties and was hopeless of getting them to move from that position,” O’Connor reported to John Redmond. “We told him he ought to deny them; he says he could not.”[15]

Despite the uphill struggle they faced, O’Connor still kept the faith. “If [Lloyd George] persists in his whole 6-county proposal,” he told Redmond on the 1st April 1917, “he will fail ignominiously for we can tear such a proposal to tatters in the House of Commons.”[16]

Perhaps, but Ireland was no longer waiting to give its representatives that chance.

‘A More Reasonable Outlook’

William Redmond’s celebrated performance in Parliament turned out to be his swansong. “We deeply regret to learn that Major William H.K. Redmond, MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment,” reported the Irish Times on the 11th June 1917, three months later, “was killed in action on the 7th inst. in the brilliant and successful attack on the Ridge of Messines.”[17]

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Aftermath of the Battle of Messines

The uniform William Redmond had worn while in the House of Commons had been no pose. Nor was his plea for reconciliation between Nationalist and Unionist Ireland anything less than sincere. That Irish soldiers from the two traditions could fight together in the same trenches was proof enough, to him, that a better, happier future was possible together.

True, differences remained – William Redmond was not so naïve as to think otherwise. “The soldier in France who was a home ruler at home probably remains so,” he admitted, writing publicly in May 1917. “The Ulster soldier who disapproved of home rule probably does so still”:

But the meeting of men of diverse opinions in the field has undoubtedly created an atmosphere of friendliness which must make it easier to adjust differences and which should induce a more reasonable outlook upon things at home.[18]

When William Redmond returned to his regiment in France, in time for the push towards a German strongpoint near Messines, his main fear was that he would be held back from the Front on account of his age.

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British soldiers in the trenches

“He felt absolutely miserable at the prospect of being kept behind,” remembered an army chaplain for the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “He had used every influence with General [William Bernard] Hickie to get over the top with the men”:

He spoke in the most feeling manner of what awaited the poor fellows, and longed to share their sufferings and their fate.

In that regard, he was to have his wish. When permission was given for him to join the firing-line, he informed a fellow Irish officer “with real delight and boyishness in his voice”, to the other man’s wonder: “I have never seen anyone so pleased as he was.”[19]

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William Redmond’s grave in Locre, Belgium

‘Tired Out’

For his older brother, it was a particularly wounding blow. “The loss of him meant to John Redmond a loss of personal efficiency,” wrote Gwynn. “Sorrow gave a strong grip to depression on a brooding mind which had always a proneness to melancholy.” For William had been more than a sibling to John, but a counsellor too, and perhaps the sole one:

He had who temperamentally shared his own point of view. Willie Redmond was the only man who could break through his brother’s constitutional reserve and could force him into discussion. In the months that were to come such a man was badly needed.[20]

John Redmond’s melancholia-prone mind had already been brooding for quite some time. “Redmond is very depressed,” wrote T.P. O’Connor to John Dillon, on the 18th May 1916. “He seems to be tired out and sick of the whole position and has again and again referred to the possibility of his retiring from politics.”[21]

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William Redmond (left), John Redmond (right) and the latter’s son, William (right)

Dillon, for his part, did not bother so much with sympathy. “It is touch and go whether we can save the movement and keep the Party in existence,” the MP for East Mayo admitted to O’Connor on the 19th August 1916. “A great deal depends on the extent to which the Chairman realises the position and on what his intentions as to the future are.” That “on these points I am to a large extent in the dark” did not bode well for saving their life’s work.[22]

A month later, on the 26th September 1916, Dillon was even more frank to O’Connor: “Enthusiasm and trust in Redmond and the Party is dead [underlined in original text] so far as the mass of the people is concerned.”

A speech Redmond made in Waterford, in October 1916, promising a tougher line in the future, gave the Constitutional cause fresh drive, as even the habitually glum Dillon agreed. To him, the speech was “all that could be desired, and it will do an incalculable amount of good. It has already had an immense effect on the country.”

There would no further negotiations with the British Government, Redmond had declared, only a demand for the release of those interned since the Easter Rising, a call for General Maxwell – his work long done in suppressing sedition – to be withdrawn from the country, and a firm resistance to any possibility of conscription in Ireland.

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John Redmond delivering a speech

After months of political deadlock, with their elected representatives appearing no more than hostages to fate, this bold new stance, in Dillon’s opinion, “took the country by surprise, and produced a great wave of reaction in favour of his leadership and of the Party. If that attitude is resolutely adhered to the country will come all right.”[23]

Dead Cat Bounce

If, if, if…

The great wave of reaction had receded by the start of 1917, leaving the Party as stranded as a beached whale. A by-election drubbing in North Roscommon in February – the first of the wins to Sinn Féin that year – was enough to plunge Redmond into a crisis of faith.

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Cartoon upon the IPP defeat in North Roscommon, from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

In a letter intended for the Party followers, Redmond acknowledged the fork on the road to which they had come. If North Roscommon was an abnormality, “a freak election, due to…momentary passion” over how the winner, Count Plunkett, had had a son executed after the Rising, then that was all well and good. But, on the other hand, should the result represent “a change of principle of policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people,” then the entire future of the Constitutional cause, the raison d’être of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had just been questioned…and found wanting.

If so, then Redmond was prepared to give way graciously: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men if they so choose.”[24]

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Another mocking cartoon from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

Thankfully for his colleagues, whose careers were hanging in the balance, Redmond was persuaded against publishing the letter. But not even a close confidant like William Redmond was immune to defeatism, as he privately urged his brother that they and all their MPs step down to make room for younger men.

Having recovered from his earlier bout of weakness, John Redmond held firm but, shortly afterwards, there was the second by-election rout of the year, this time for South Longford in May 1917. It had been a hard-fought contest, and a razor-thin difference in votes at the end, but a loss was a loss, and one sorely felt.

It was, in Gwynn’s view, “a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party” on the part of the Irish people. This was not merely hindsight speaking, for shortly after South Longford, a second suggestion was made that the Party MPs resign their seats en masse and allow the country to decide on the choice before it: the constitutional way or…the other way.

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Cartoon depiction of John Redmond, ‘Roscommon Herald’, 21st May 1917

Again, Redmond was adamantly against such a step down, as Gwynn described: “He said that it would be a lack of courage: that one or two defeats should not turn us from our course.”[25]

That is, if their course could still be taken. No outlet had argued harder for the IPP candidate than the Longford Leader. In the wake of bitter rejection, however, the newspaper could predict only one end for its political patrons:

It cannot be doubted that in a few years Ireland will have recovered from the present fitful fever, and see the error of its present course, but in the meantime the Irish National Party and programme will be probably a thing of the past, and the people will have only the empty husks of Sinn Féin left.[26]

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John Dillon

That such a probability had come about at all was a source of shocked wonder to the Longford Leader, but it did not pretend to see any other. Neither did the IPP itself, not even at its top. “[John Redmond] does not seem to me to realise the situation any more than he did in the winter of 1915-1916,” Dillon wrote cuttingly to T.P O’Connor in November 1917. Come a general election, he predicted, and then “there will be nothing left in Ireland except Republican separatists and Ulster loyalists,” with the IPP confined to history.[27]

He got that right.

Return to Ireland

For some, the day that the IPP was a thing of the past could not come soon enough. When John Redmond warned Westminster that revolution was a-stir in Ireland, he had not been indulging in hyperbole, the proof of which was on full display in Dublin on the Monday morning of the 18th June 1917.

“It was apparent to most citizens when they came within the heart of the city for their day’s business that there was something unusual astir,” wrote the Irish Times, adding sniffily: “The main streets were occupied by people who were not usually abroad at 10 a.m.”

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Crowds watching in Wesmoreland Row as the prisoners march through Dublin

Marching from Westmoreland Station and up Great Brunswick Street came a procession of young men and women, who made their Sinn Féin sympathies clear with the tricoloured flags they waved, the songs they sung, and the group of men in their midst: the one hundred and twenty or so rebel POWs taken during the Easter Rising, newly released from English captivity by a general amnesty.

Onwards over O’Connell Bridge, they crossed into Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the place in which it had all began, and where the sight of the still-ruined General Post Office and other bullet-scarred buildings was enough to inspire a fresh burst of enthusiasm in the crowd. A squad of policemen shadowed the parade, carefully keeping their distance, but no incident occurred as the freed men continued on to Gardiner’s Row, inside Fleming’s Hotel for breakfast and a long-anticipated rest.

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Seán O’Mahony

As they ate, one of their number, Seán O’Mahony, stepped out to address the adoring young acolytes waiting on the street. This, he told them, was far from the end of what had begun on the Easter Week of 1916, over a year ago but still fresh in Irish memories. He affirmed they were still fighting for the same tricoloured flag under which they had done so already in the Rising, for they believed in actions, not words, and would soon resume the great work that had already begun.

After their rest, the released men resumed their march to the offices in Exchequer Street of the National Aid Association, set up to help alleviate their financial needs, and then to the Mansion House, followed all the way by the multitudes. Such was the press of bodies and the heat that one of the former prisoners fainted.

The day’s display complete, the men went their separate ways, at least for now. Some hurried to catch the evening trains back to their homes in the country, while others continued to be the centres of attention as the celebrations continued in Dublin. “Whenever a released Sinn Feiner, or anyone remotely suspected of being one, was observed, cheers were often raised,” reported the Irish Times.

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Group photograph of some of the released prisoners

With their close-cropped hair and conservatively-trimmed beards, it was hard to tell who was who among the freed men. Eoin MacNeill was known to be present, as was W.T. Cosgrave, along with Count Plunkett and Joe McGuinness, the two MPs elected earlier that year on behalf of Sinn Féin for North Roscommon and South Longford respectively.

Worthy names, all, but the most notable one was Éamon de Valera, he who had been in command at Boland’s Mill and now continued to be so over his comrades, as demonstrated earlier that day at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] Pier, when they had first lined up on the boat-deck before crossing the gangway in formation, two by two, on de Valera’s order.

His authority continued to be felt throughout the day. “There appeared to be an arrangement amongst the prisoners not to express their opinions publicly in regard to their treatment in prison,” noted the Irish Times. When asked about that, the men merely said that any official statement was to come from de Valera.[28]

Choices and Omens

It was a name that would soon be on everyone’s lips, for the parliamentary seat of East Clare now lay open with William Redmond’s death, and Sinn Féin was determined to capitalise on its previous two electoral wins by adding a third. The lesson of South Longford was that Joe McGuinness had succeeded, not despite his penal status, but because of it, for Easter Week conferred nobility on a man like nothing else in the eyes of the Irish public.

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Sinn Féin poster for Longford, 1917, depicting Joe McGuinness as a prisoner

The choice of another prisoner to contest East Clare was thus essential. Arthur Griffith had been making the case to the Central Election Committee for Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. But, in that, the President of Sinn Féin stood alone. MacNeill’s fateful attempt to cancel the Rising before it could begin, with his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, was too well remembered.[29]

“I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us,” Tom Clarke had instructed his wife, Kathleen, during their final time together in Kilmainhaim Jail while awaiting his execution. “He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country.”[30]

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The countermanding order on Easter Sunday, 1916, as issued by Eoin MacNeill

Not all shared this unforgiving view, but none of the Election Committee besides Griffith were about to risk such a controversial choice. De Valera seemed a far safer bet, being already regarded as the leader of the Irish POWs while they were held in Lewes Prison. But, as he and the others had not yet been released, it was unknown if he would accept the nomination if offered. The decision was thus deferred to a later date, and the Sinn Féin activists already sent to East Clare would just have to work without a name in the meantime.[31]

Not that this presented too much of a problem for Dan MacCarthy, the mastermind behind the previous electoral win. If South Longford had been a battlefield in more than the political sense, with riots, stone-throwing and beatings throughout the campaign, then the next constituency was a pleasant surprise to MacCarthy: “I found the people generally more sympathetic than in Longford and I felt that this was a good omen for our cause.”

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Éamon de Valera

The speech he gave at Berefield Church, after the priest introduced him from the altar to the congregation, allowed him to gauge the public mood, which appeared to be a positive one. As for the identity of the man on whose behalf MacCarthy was in Clare: “Various rumours went round as far as we were concerned. One time we heard it was Peadar Clancy [another 1916 participant], and the next Eoin MacNeill, and finally it transpired to be de Valera.”[32]

Roads to Take or Not to Take

The decision was not an easy one to make, not least because de Valera had been wrestling with it himself even as he took his first step back on Irish soil. Politics was a field utterly new to him, and one he regarded with some trepidation. When news had reached the Lewes inmates in April 1917 that one of their number, Joe McGuinness, was being nominated to run in the South Longford contest, de Valera was among those against any such forays in the electoral sphere.

Instead, the “safest course for us and in the long run the wisest is to continue as soldiers,” he wrote to a friend on the outside. “The Irish Volunteers…must be kept a permanent force at the country’s back…and we must allow nothing to make us forget it.”[33]

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Irish Volunteers

Victory in South Longford made de Valera and many of the others in Lewes revaluate their standoffishness where non-military methods were concerned. After all, the main issue for de Valera, as he explained in a letter to a friend, was not that politics was wrong, but that it was a gamble. “I for one would have to be almost certain of success before I would risk such a stake,” he wrote [underlined in original text].[34]

Success seemed much more likely now, with two by-election wins under Sinn Féin’s belt, but de Valera was still weighing the options by the time of the general release. Patrick McCartan, a long-time Republican activist, found him in a pensive mood on board the ship taking the former prisoners to Dublin.

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Patrick McCartan

“Mr de Valera had already been selected to contest County Clare in the Republican interest. He said he knew nothing about politics and did not like them,” McCartan wrote later. “He believed he could do the best work for Ireland by confining his attention to the organisation of the Irish Volunteers.” Having canvassed in South Longford, McCartan had a more contemporary view of the public mood in Ireland and counselled de Valera to wait and see it for himself before committing.[35]

The enthusiastic reception in Dublin was evidently enough for de Valera, and he decided without further ado to stand for East Clare. There were still finishing touches to be done: as de Valera was not actually a member of the party he was to represent, a session of the O’Rahilly Cumann was quickly convened in Pembroke, Dublin, to wave him in.[36]

Even with that settled, another problem reared its head: the MacNeill one. While some wanted him kept away from East Clare, if not drummed out of the movement altogether, de Valera made it clear that the other man’s presence on the campaign was a condition of his own running. In the teeth of opposition, de Valera had his way, and not for the last time, in what was to be an extraordinary career.[37]

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Countess Markievicz

Still, resentments simmered. De Valera and MacNeill were seated together on the train to Ennis, along with a number of other Sinn Féin activists, when Countess Markievicz entered. Sighting MacNeill, she gave him a piece of her mind, prompting the harried man to take his leave for another carriage. He was brought back by de Valera, who was having none of such unseemly displays.

“There must be no recriminations,” he told the others sternly. That brought a measure of calm to the journey, if not quite peace, for the MacNeill controversy, and what it meant for Sinn Féin as a whole, would linger on for the better part of the year.[38]

Kathleen Clarke’s War

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Kathleen Clarke

For Kathleen Clarke, these gestures of solidary towards a man she considered the worst sort of blackguard was one more reason to be troubled by the direction the revolutionary movement, for which her husband had laid down his life, was taking. “When I heard that de Valera had insisted on MacNeill accompanying him to Clare, it confirmed my fears” about what she considered “the demoralising influence of elections.”[39]

Participating in the British parliamentary system was a contentious practice in Ireland. First Charles Parnell, followed by John Redmond, had made it the centre-piece of their drive for Irish self-rule, but true-blue Republicans like Kathleen and Tom Clarke regarded playing the enemy’s game with suspicion, even hostility.

“I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it,” Tom Clarke had told Seán Mac Diarmada nine years earlier, in 1908. After acting as campaign organiser for Sinn Féin’s unsuccessful foray in the North Leitrim by-election, Mac Diarmada had returned to Dublin to merrily recount the cut and thrust of the contest to his friend.

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Tom Clarke

Tom had listened to him in sombre silence before bringing the other man back down to earth. “Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks,” he had scolded. A chastened Mac Diarmada promised to never again besmirch their cause like so.[40]

Eleven years later, and Sinn Féin was trying again, except with far grander ambitions than a single seat, and packing the clout to succeed this time, much to Kathleen Clarke’s dismay. To her, the only way forward was with the gun. All else was a distraction in her mind, but it appeared that now, with efforts now diverted into electioneering, “we might say goodbye to any more fighting.”[41]

And that simply would not do.

She made an exception for South Longford in May 1917 – Joe McGuinness was an Easter Rising alumni, after all – and after rallying some of the other women bereaved by the Rising, such as Áine Ceannt and Margaret Pearse, Clarke threw herself into this new battle. And a battle it could be in a literal sense. While driving back into Longford town after a rally, her car and those of the others in the group were met with a hail of missiles from IPP partisans.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett, seated in a car during the South Longford election of 1917

Being at the head of the convoy, along with the Count and Countess Plunkett, Clarke’s vehicle bore the brunt of the deluge. The Countess suffered a bloody nose from a thrown bottle, while Clarke just about escaped worse, thanks to the hard hat she was wearing, when a rock struck her head. “The only injury done was to my feelings,” she recalled. “I was mad enough to want to throw stones back at them.”

This was not an isolated incident. The lane the Sinn Féiners had to take to the hotel that served as their headquarters was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ because, as Clarke put it, “every time we passed it stones and bottles came flying out at us.”[42]

Laying the Cards on the Table

Despite the success at South Longford, Clarke remained dissatisfied, one of the many reasons being her antipathy towards those who were reaping most of the gains, however undeservedly. “After the Rising the press, alluding to it, called it a Sinn Féin Rising. This was not correct; the organisation then called Sinn Féin was not a revolutionary one, and it had been very nearly defunct.”[43]

Such misnaming conveyed instant benefits to some: “The fact that the Rising was now being called a Sinn Féin rising gave Arthur Griffith his chance, one he was quick to seize.” This despite how “the Sinn Féin which grew out of the Rising was a totally different one from that which had been in existence before the Rising.”[44]

Traveler Digital CameraIf Griffith was suspect, then MacNeill was contemptible. Assuming de Valera had simply not been informed of his responsibility for the countermand, Clarke decided to enlighten him with an invitation to her house in Dundrum, Dublin, for both him and MacNeill, on the 28th July 1917. When they arrived, Clarke was ready with her case for the prosecution:

I told him of the instructions I had received from Tom in Kilmainhaim Jail, that MacNeill must not be permitted to come back into the National life of the country again, for if he was he would in a crisis again act treacherously. I had promised to carry out these instructions if I could.

The sole reason she was hesitating to do just that, she explained, was because of his arrest following the Rising, which bestowed on him a credibility she could not touch. Having said that, she continued:

Circumstances might still tie my hands, and I might not be able to carry out my promise to my husband, but the story of his treachery would not die with me, that I would write it and leave it as documentary proof against him.

And, with that, the interview mercifully drew to an end, Clarke having laid down the gauntlet to MacNeill. De Valera had listened attentively throughout while keeping – the consummate politician already – his thoughts to himself.[45]

Sacred Principle?

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Eoin MacNeill

Clarke would have been even less thrilled if she knew how close her béte noire had become with the rising star of Sinn Féin. Since their release from Lewes Prison, the two men had been conversing a good deal, and MacNeilll was pleased to learn that the other’s worldview was broadly in line with his own. For the likes of Clarke, it was the Republic or nothing, while MacNeill had only scorn for those “obsessed with the notion that some sort of sacred principle underlay the Republican ideal.”[46]

MacNeill took a more libertarian view. For him, “real freedom consisted in the power to do your own things in your own way and not in any paper definition or a constitutional formula.”[47]

He was careful not to appear too broad-minded, however. When asked for his opinion on which independence policy to pursue, he was as happy as anyone to declare in favour of a Republic, though more out of pragmatism than any deep-seated commitment, as he put it:

It was a matter of comparative indifference for the time what form this independence ought to take so far as I knew there was no practical prospect of setting up an Irish monarchy, and the alternative was an Irish Republic.

In private discussions with de Valera, shortly before the pair set off for East Clare, MacNeill came to believe that the other man “was no more than I was myself, a doctrinaire republican.” Nonetheless, de Valera could appreciate the emotional value of a bold approach, and “urged on me…that the demand for an Irish Republic would present a stronger appeal to the electorate and the public than anything else less definite.”[48]

And so, on that agreed basis, “we fought the Clare Election as Republicans without any qualifications” and won by a steep majority.[49]

ed104-eamon-de-valera-and-others-on-the-steps-of-ennis-court-house-for-the-clare-elections2c-ke-132
Éamon de Valera (in uniform), speaking before Ennis Courthouse during the East Clare election, 1917

Winning the Argument

That by-election, and the subsequent one for Kilkenny City a month later, in August 1917, put MacNeill in the front-line for the struggle for Ireland’s soul. He was assisted in this by Dan MacCarthy, the Sinn Féin Director of Elections, who, having honed his craft in South Longford and East Clare, knew how to run a tight ship. “His method was very thorough and efficient,” MacNeill noted approvingly:

All of us who were understood to be engaged in the work were supplied, each one, with his own programme for the day, handed to him that morning or the evening before. He was told who was to accompany him, to what places he was to go, and what particular person he was to interview.

Under MacCarthy’s direction, MacNeill was dispatched to court “the hard chaws, old unionists and stiff supporters of the Parliamentary Party”, perhaps because, as a former college professor, he would present a reassuringly respectable emissary, as well as one who could handle himself in a debate. When a local worthy in Kilkenny posed to him if it was honourable for one who had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the British monarch to support an Irish Republic, MacNeill asked if he had MPs or army officers in mind.

Both, was the reply.

Thinking quickly on his feet, MacNeill took each point in turn. With regard to the first, he drew on the case of the 1689 rebellion, when James II had been overthrown in favour of the current line of succession, so what worth was an oath there? As for the second, he simply, but effectively, pointed to the example of George Washington.

“I had the best of the argument but,” MacNeill conceded, “I do not think I got the vote.”[50]

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W.T. Cosgrave addressing a crowd in Kilkenny, 1917

Not that it mattered too much, as Sinn Féin won the seat by another landslide. That made four straight defeats for the once-almighty IPP. Flushed with success and warmed by the camaraderie of the campaign-trail, Sinn Féin enjoyed its halcyon days, which were to make for some bittersweet memories when MacNeill looked back on them.

“The spirit of good order and good humour that animated the whole body of adherents of Sinn Féin at that time,” he wrote, “offers a strange contrast to what was experienced after 1921.”[51]

Conflict…

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Arthur Griffith

Schism almost came early. If Clarke and MacNeill each represented the principled and the pragmatic wings in Sinn Féin, then it was a tenuous balance, one which threatened to tip over from disagreements behind closed doors to an open split. This had almost occurred earlier in the year, in April 1917, at the Mansion House, Dublin, during the ‘Plunkett Convention’, when Griffith and Count George Plunkett shared the stage – to almost ruinous effect.

The latter, who had had one son executed after the Rising and with another two in prison, “was impatient of temperate men or means.” If Plunkett blew hot, then Griffith, in contrast:

Sat there like a sphinx, square and solid, like a man of granite, lacking charm – physically or mentality. Griffith had a mind of ice that could freeze Irish histrionic champagne solid. He was the one cold fact in a sea of fantasy.

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Count Plunkett

Which earned him few friends, particularly among the Irish Volunteers, many of whom “disliked and scorned him.” Proof of such feelings soon manifested on the platform in the form of Plunkett’s undisguised anger at the other man, and only a disruption in the audience – when Volunteers on standby manhandled journalists scribbling away in their notebooks, thinking them to be police detectives – gave enough of a break in the proceedings for a truce between Griffith and Plunkett for the rest of the event.[52]

But it seemed only a matter of time before another confrontation and maybe not one that could be so easily dispelled. If the ideal of the Republic was what held the movement together, it could also, conversely, tear it asunder, and Griffith was reluctant to move in too dramatic a direction, lest the ‘middle ground’ of Irish opinion be alienated just when Sinn Féin was poised to win it over.[53]

With that in mind, Sinn Féin activists in the East Clare election were warned to avoid mentioning the Republic to prospective voters…that is, until their candidate publicly declared for such a goal. The listeners roared their approval at de Valera’s words to the extent that “it was a considerable time before he could resume his speech,” recalled one witness, who was aware of what certain others in the party really thought:

The Sinn Féin members of the election committee were very annoyed, but they were not prepared to come to grips with de Valera, and, if his action was commented upon at a committee which followed the public were not aware of any disagreement.[54]

Another insider present in East Clare, the trade unionist William O’Brien, noted how:

In the course of the election campaign, there was a very sharp division between the speakers. De Valera proclaimed his objective to be the Republic, stating that personally that was the only objective he could stand for. Griffith, Milroy and others took the point of view of the old Sinn Féin organisation.[55]

And yet, despite such differences, de Valera and Griffith seemed to get along on a personal level, far better, in any case, than the latter did with the likes of Count Plunkett or Kathleen Clarke. De Valera, Griffith confided to friends during the course of the Clare election, was to be the future leader of Sinn Féin. As well as being younger, Griffith said in another talk, de Valera was a soldier – no small virtue in the current times – and had, in his opinion, all the makings of a statesman.[56]

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The best of friends? Arthur (left) and Éamon de Valera (right)

Which gave some hope for an amiable resolution that would allow Sinn Féin to move forward – that is, if nothing too disastrous struck in the meantime.

That something almost occurred over Kilkenny, with MacNeill as the trigger, when a by-election was announced upon the death of its MP, Pat O’Brien, in July 1917. Despite the lingering controversy over his countermanding order, MacNeill enjoyed a measure of support in Sinn Féin’s grassroots, such as in the Kilkenny Club which wrote to the Dublin headquarters in favour of nominating him to run.

When the Central Executive replied that it would prefer W.T. Cosgrave, whose CV as a Rising combatant and former prisoner made him a more comfortable choice, “we received an indignant reply that they were not to be dictated to by Dublin and they were sending a deputation to Mr MacNeill asking him to stand.”

…And Resolution

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Tommy Dillon

So remembered Tommy Dillon. As son-in-law to Count Plunkett, Dillon was able to sit in on Executive meetings and so understood the strength of feeling to be found there. While he had nothing personal against MacNeill, certainly not to the extent that Clarke did, he was aware of how “the leaders of the anti-MacNeill group were…influential and the possibility of factions arising could not be ignored” should the question be pushed too far.

It was with this danger in mind that Dillon hurriedly cycled to Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, shortly after the last testy message from Kilkenny, to head off the threatened deputation. Upon reaching the hotel, he was told that the Kilkenny visitors had already left and so he rode on to where he guessed they had gone: the house in Rathfarnham where MacNeill was residing:

When I arrived at the house, a taxi stood in the front grounds.  I asked for [MacNeill] and was told that he was engaged. James [MacNeill’s brother], however, brought him out to me and when I told him the object of my visit he said that the Kilkenny deputation was with him, that he understood the situation and that he was about to refuse their invitation.

MacNeill made no mention in his memoirs of this deputation or of Dillon’s last minute intervention. It is possible to suspect, if one were to be cynical, that MacNeill may not have been ‘about to refuse’ like he said, which Dillon did him the favour of believing. Sinn Féin was able to proceed smoothly in Kilkenny, with Cosgrave on its ticket, to score another unambiguous win.[57]

264But it could not be ‘touch and go’ for the movement indefinitely, and the upcoming Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, set for October 1917 at the Mansion House, Dublin, seemed the best opportunity to finally bury the hatchet over who ordered what for Easter Week. Which was what some dreaded. A few days beforehand, Countess Markievicz visited Kathleen Clarke’s house in Dundrum to ask her to oppose MacNeill should he be nominated for the new Executive.

Having been ‘advised’ – as she put it – by some against such an act, Clarke declined, while warning the Countess that if she was to lead the anti-MacNeill charge herself, she would do so alone. Never one to be deterred by the odds, Markievicz waited for the Árd Fheis to open and then “stood up and attacked [MacNeill] on the question of the secret countermanding orders.”

To Clarke’s dismay:

Her attack got such a bitterly hostile reception that despite my decision not to support her, I got up and did so. It seemed to me that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.[58]

The moderates had their way, and MacNeill was duly voted to the Executive. Sinn Féin had come a long way since its conception in 1905, to the extent that one of the delegates, Áine Ceannt – widow of the 1916 martyr – wondered out loud if the proceedings should be classed as the first Árd Fehis of a totally new organisation. All the same, it was decided to stick with it being the sixth such event for a continuous Sinn Féin – why bring in unnecessary complications, after all?[59]

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The Mansion House, Dublin, the venue for the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis of October 1917

Unconvention

For things were complicated enough as they were. The Sinn Féin delegate for South Mayo, Patrick Moylett, had attended a secret meeting of the Irish Volunteers on the evening before the Árd Fheis. Handed to him was a list of names who were to have his vote when proposed for election to the Sinn Féin Executive.

An indignant Moylett replied:

…that if I were to act on his instruction I would be defranchising [sic] the people who sent me and not doing my duty to them. I objected to the fact that in a democratic institution I should be told how I was to vote.[60]

Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were two groups normally in lockstep but, even so, not without moments of disjunction. When the time came the next day for the Executive election at the Árd Fheis, a number of delegates interrupted to announce how they had been canvassed beforehand with such lists, their disapproval of this chicanery made publicly clear.

“I wish to associate myself strongly with what has just been said by the previous speakers,” de Valera said, simultaneously supportive while keen to avoid fingers being pointed at a time of supposed unity. “Those who are responsible had probably the very best motives in view, but when we are beginning – as we are – a new Ireland, it will not be necessary to resort to such methods in future.”

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Éamon de Valera

“The sense of the convention is strongly condemnatory of any attempt to run tickets,” added Griffith as president. “If that system were allowed to go on, it would destroy the movement in a few years.”[61]

With that said, the election went ahead, resulting in the appointment of the twenty-four members of the new Executive, along with  a change of presidency in the form of de Valera, by unanimous consent when the two other contenders, Griffith and Count Plunkett, as per a prior agreement between them, had the good grace – and political nous – to step back.

In doing so, “a split between the extremists and the moderate section was narrowly averted,” wrote the police report for October. Which was one more worry for the Inspector-General, Joseph Bryce, to give to his employers in Dublin Castle:

The state of political unrest…continued without abatement during the Month, and a marked advance in organization was made by the seditious Sinn Fein movement.

If the Sinn Féin of old under Griffith had been of the moderate persuasion, then now “the majority of Sinn Fein leaders owe their present prominence to active participation in the late rising” with the same zealotry carried over. De Valera was a case in point: from being an obscure teacher, he was now instructing an audience in Co. Clare, with the air of a general marshalling his troops, to ready themselves for an opportune moment to strike again.

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Irish Volunteers

Other speeches from Sinn Féin figures were of a similar calibre and, in light of such blatant calls to sedition, Bryce warned:

It is obvious that several are prepared to plunge the country into another rebellion should a favourable opportunity occur, and that the whole movement must be regarded as a serious menace to the state.

And yet, at the same time, “the majority of the adherents of Sinn Fein are believed to be averse to physical force.” For all the talk of war and rebellion repeated, “it will be noticed that drilling activity [of the Irish Volunteers] is so far confined to the S.W. area.”[62]

Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha

This ambiguity over violence was reflected in the Árd Fheis when Father O’Meehan, as one of the delegates, proposed an amendment to the Sinn Féin constitution: that the words “means available”, in regards to obtaining Irish freedom, were to be followed by “deemed legitimate and effective.”

By ‘legitimate’ I mean not according to British rule in Ireland, but according to well-established etheral [?] and Christian principles. Our enemies would, for instance, be glad to say that assassination comes under this, and it is in order to prevent them saying that that I move this addendum.

In case such talk smacked too much of Redmondite ways, “I did not use the word ‘Constitutional’ because that has a bad flavour,” the priest added, earning himself a round of applause.

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Sinn Féin postcard

The proposed change was ultimately withdrawn. Opposing it had been Cathal Brugha, one of the more militant Republicans in the hall. Nothing in their constitution as it stood would lend itself to the interpretation that so concerned Father O’Meehan, Brugha insisted. In any case, the point was moot, as “we do not intend to meet English rule by assassination,” he said firmly.[63]

As for a second Rising, that possibility, when raised, was met with laughter.[64]

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Éamon de Valera (left) with Cathal Brugha (right), 1922

If constitutional flavours left a sour taste, and with the other end of the spectrum still too strong to stomach, how then was Sinn Féin to proceed? Father Gaynor hoped to answer this when he next rose to speak. “I have come here as a delegate with the sympathy of the men from Clare to move that we do not set up a political organisation,” he said, “and we have come here in the hope that we will find something better to do.”

Instead of following in the footsteps of the Irish Parliamentary Party with another political machine, Gaynor urged, the convention must establish nothing less than a ruling body with a mandate for the whole country. In doing so:

We should make the position straight by showing that we do not want a Sinn Féin party versus the Irish Party, but a Provisional Government versus Dublin Castle and the British Government.

Which was rather putting the cart before the horse, as many of the other attendees in the hall pointed out. For all the lofty proclamations of nationhood and the Republic, there still remained the gritty task of earning the right to speak for Ireland.

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Sinn Féin postcard

“This organisation is a national organisation in the broadest sense of the term but, all the same, it cannot be regarded as a constituent assembly,” de Valera pointed out. “Surely we have got beyond the stage where politics should be regarded as roguery and politicians as rogues.”

Others would have disagreed. But, while the likes of young Todd Andrews, as he watched John Redmond being hounded in the streets, may have dismissed politicians as a low and dirty breed, Sinn Féin was nonetheless nearing the point where, in beating the system, you become the system.[65]

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Sinn Féin postcard

References

[1] Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917), pp. 88-9

[2] Irish Times, 23/05/1915, 26/06/1915

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 104-6

[4] Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919), p. 249

[5] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 272

[6] Ibid, pp. 270-1

[7] Ibid, p. 271

[8] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[9] Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995), p. 112

[10] Gwynn, p. 249

[11] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[12] Denman, p. 111

[13] Gwynn, p. 255

[14] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[15] Meleady, pp. 272-3

[16] Ibid, p. 273

[17] Ibid, 11/07/1917

[18] Denman, p. 114

[19] Ibid, p. 118

[20] Gwynn, p. 266

[21] Meleady, p. 240

[22] Ibid, p. 267

[23] Ibid, p. 268

[24] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[25] Gwynn, pp. 259-60

[26] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[27] Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968), pp. 425-6

[28] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[29] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), p. 134

[30] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 137

[31] O’Brien, p. 134

[32] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), p. 16

[33] McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017), p. 112

[34] Ibid, p. 113

[35] McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932), p. 9

[36] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), p. 106

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

[38] Nugent, p. 106

[39] Clarke, p. 188

[40] Ibid, p. 55

[41] Ibid, p. 188

[42] Ibid, pp. 186-7

[43] Ibid, p. 178

[44] Ibid, p. 193

[45] Ibid, pp. 190-1

[46] MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin), p. 90

[47] Ibid, p. 97

[48] Ibid, p. 90

[49] Ibid, p. 91

[50] Ibid, pp. 91-2

[51] Ibid, p. 91

[52] Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996), pp. 107-8

[53] O’Brien, pp. 99-100

[54] Nugent, p. 107

[55] O’Brien, pp. 135-6

[56] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698), Part II, p. 171 ; MacCarthy, p. 20

[57] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, pp. 396-7

[58] Clarke, pp. 193-4

[59] Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 54

[60] Moylett, Patrick (BMH / WS 767), pp. 13-4

[61] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, Trinity College Library, Dublin, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019), pp. 29-30

[62] Police reports from Dublin Castle records, National Library of Ireland, POS 8544

[63] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 18-9

[64] O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952), p. 719

[65] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 22-3

Bibliography

Books

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

Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)

Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996)

Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919)

Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968)

MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin)

McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Limited, 1932)

McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017)

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917)

O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952)

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Bureau of Military History Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

Moylett, Patrick, WS 767

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

Article

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

Trinity College Dublin Collection

Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019)

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

A continuation from: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

A Black Outlook

For Liam Mellows, failure on Easter Week 1916 was not an option. While Galway had had a late start on the Tuesday, the Irish Volunteers there having dispersed the day before due to the confusion over orders, reports that their compatriots in Dublin had gone ahead in rebellion spurred them into doing their part after all.

After some skirmishes with the police, Mellows had led his forces away from the impending British counter-attack, taking shelter in Limepark House. It was no more than a temporary respite, for the Volunteers fully intended to continue the struggle – that is, until the arrival of a pair of priests on Friday evening, bringing word that Dublin had surrendered – erroneously so, but close enough, given the battered state of the city – forced the Galway officers to face the unpalatable reality that their localised insurrection stood alone.[1]

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Officers in the Galway Volunteers

After months of preparation, the Rising in Galway had barely last five days. For Alf Monahan, one of Mellows’ right-hand men, the disappointment was made all the more crushing by how he had dared to believe:

Although we had not any hopes of doing anything big when we went out…our hopes began to brighten during the week when we heard the guns booming in Galway Bay, and the rumours of Dublin were heartening too – up to Friday night. Certainly the outlook appeared black on Saturday morning.

It seemed too much like history repeating itself, with the future balefully uncertain. “England had won again and no one knew what was in store,” Monahan lamented. He and Mellows urged for them to fight on, but the other officers had already made up their minds. All that was left to do was break the news to the rest of the men.[2]

A whistle-blast summoned the Volunteers to the front of Limepark House, where Mellows and Father Thomas Fahy were waiting on the front step. With Mellows standing silently by, the clergyman addressed the assembled ranks, informing them that their position was hopeless.

Instead of a fruitless sacrifice, he continued, they should instead disband and wait for a better time in which to offer the country their services.[3]

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Irish Volunteers, standing to attention

Confronted with such bald words, the Volunteers took heed and prepared to return to their homes. But not Mellows, who had decided to survive as best he could on the run. Joining him in this venture were Monahan and another of his leading officers, Frank Hynes from Athenry.

Mellows bore the rest of his short-lived army no ill will, shaking the hands of the men in turn as he bade them farewell. “We were very brónach [sad] in parting with the leaders who had been with us, training and advising us for the Rising,” remembered one man:

We knew that neither Mellows nor Monahan did not like to give the order to disband and I am sure they knew that the men would have followed them to the bitter end, but as the priests who had come there, had advised against further bloodshed and as Mellows and Monahan considered themselves responsible for all our lives, had to make a decision which they hated to do.[4]

When Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were left alone outside a now deserted Limepark House, there was nothing left to do but set off southwards. They made for an unusual little band – a Wexford man reared in Dublin (Mellows), a Belfast native (Monahan) and a local (Hynes), now cast out into wilds of Galway, trusting in nothing but luck, country charity and their own wits.

Spreading Out of Nothing

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Liam Mellows

Help came in a number of sympathetic houses along the way. The first of such boltholes was the Howley farm, owned by a friend of Mellows’ whose son, Peter Howley, had only just left Limepark like the rest of the Irish Volunteers. Howley Senior chatted with Mellows as the trio were served refreshments. Only hours had passed since the close of the Rising, and Mellows was left unsure on what to do next, until Peter advised for him and his two companions to proceed to the Corless house and remain there until he picked them up at nightfall.

This was agreed on, and Mellows, Hynes and Monahan took their leave of the Howleys at around 7 am, on the Saturday morning. From then on, it would be essential to remain one step ahead of the inevitable pursuit by the authorities.[5]

The brothers Patsy and Martin Corless, a pair of elderly bachelors who lived together, quickly made the group welcome with food, as well as providing the runaways the chance for some desperately needed sleep. This they did for a full fourteen hours while Patsy made arrangements for another home, that of William Blanche. Peter Howley failed to appear but, as there was no time to delay, the three moved on regardless.

They were warmly greeted by Mr and Mrs Blanche. The former in particular could relate to their plight, being a fellow Volunteer despite his advanced years and thus vulnerable to arrest himself without distinction as to whether or not he had been part of the Rising. As well as refuge, the Blanche house provided the chance for Mellows to overhear some flattering talk, as Monahan remembered:

A girl visitor called to see Mrs Blanche and she was bursting with news and the three rebels in the bedroom had the pleasure of hearing this young lady’s first-hand information about Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], what he had done and what he intended to do in the future.

It is marvellous how quickly rumours grow out of nothing and spread all over the country. This young lady told Mrs Blanche that Liam Mellowes was escaping out of the country disguised as a girl. “You know,” she added, “Mellowes is very goodlooking.”

It was only with effort that the three men stifled their laughter.

Less gratifying was what was overheard from another caller who castigated Mellows as a coward and a troublemaker. The temptation for Mellows to appear before him like a ghost at a feast was almost irresistible.[6]

Imperial Response

Their foes, meanwhile, were not idle. Peter Howley was about to leave for the Corless’ house as planned, when he found his own surrounded by about sixty British soldiers and policemen from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Peter was arrested, along with two of his brothers, their roles in the Volunteers making them obvious suspects.

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RIC constables

The Crown forces brought the Howley boys along with them as they drove on in a small fleet of twelve armoured cars towards Limepark House. Seeing that the building was surrounded by thick shrubbery, making it an ideal place to defend, the soldiers and RIC men marched the three brothers ahead as human shields while they advanced in battle formation, firing off a few shots before they found the house to be empty.

All that was left was were discarded items such as pikes, bandoliers, detonators and bombs, as well as supplies of bacon, beef and eggs, which were eagerly consumed by the hungry men.  Pieces of linotype metal were also found, apparently to be melted down for more bullets. That so much was abandoned at Limepark spoke at the haste in which the previous occupants had vacated.

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Limepark House today

Searching further, the patrol spotted two men over in a field. When called to halt, one of the pair ran, earning himself a few shots in his direction, while the other stayed rooted to the ground. He was, upon further inspection, merely a farmer who had been going about his business.

The RIC-military squad retired to their barracks with their prisoners. The Howley brothers were transferred to the military barracks in Galway town but revealed nothing about their recent guests, who were unaware of the close call they had had.

A more fruitful discovery for the RIC was of their five colleagues who had been taken prisoner during the week. Constables Manning, Malone, Walsh, Donovan and McDermott had walked all the way from Limepark to Kilcolgan village, but were less than useful in what they could tell, explaining that they had been guarded by strangers in a dark room, after being marched for miles and consequently losing all sense of direction. Recognising any of their captors would be out of the question. They had escaped, the five explained, when their guards had neglected to watch them, allowing them to creep away.[7]

This last point would have been a relief to the Irish Volunteers. One of Mellows’ arguments to Father Fahy against disbanding was that the POWs would be able to identify his men. Fahy had consulted with the RIC captives, who agreed to give no such information in return for freedom. The policemen had evidently been true to their word.[8]

The British authorities were, for the moment, largely ignorant about the whereabouts of Mellows or even that the uprising was already over. As far as it knew, the insurgents remained at large as a cohesive force. “It was estimated that the strength of the Volunteers, who had retired in a south-westerly direction, was about 500,” reported the Connacht Tribune.[9]

Rumours that some of the remaining rebels had retreated to Island Eddy, a few miles off the Galway coast, prompted a search there. When British soldiers were investigating the island, the rising tide caught them by surprise, submerging their boats and trapping them in caves. Disaster was averted when a fishing smack saw their distress signals and sent a boat to rescue the fifty men from drowning. It was not the most dignified of moments in military history.[10]

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Island Eddy

Windy Hill

The day after resting at the Blanches’, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were taken by William Blanche to an old cattle-shed on Corr na Gaithe, or ‘Windy Hill’, owned by William Hood. It was an apt name as its occupants quickly discovered but they bravely strove to get used to it, as they tried to with the rain dripping through the inadequately thatched roof or the mice who scurried in their multitudes from the frequently damp straw, over the sleeping men at night. Lighting a fire for warmth, and risking the smoke being visible for miles around, was out of the question, as was leaving the shed, even to stretch their legs.[11]

Some small relief was provided by the intrepid Blanche. On the run himself, he would hide in the furze during the day before venturing up the windy hill at night to provide the other three with whatever food he could get. Sometimes it would be a jam-jar of boiled cabbage, and on other occasions the meal was nothing but potatoes, but something was better than nothing, and the diners wolfed down whatever came, knowing that they would have to wait until the following night for anything else.

Not so obliging was the owner of the shed. Hood had not been informed beforehand about his new guests and received a shock upon discovering them. Nervous that they would be found by the authorities on his property and drag him into their troubles, Hood would visit every evening to warn of an imminent search by soldiers or policemen, only to return the next morning to find his guests inconveniently still present.

As Hynes recalled, in words laced with contempt even years later: “A few suggestions he made to us gave us to understand that if he could get us out of his shed he didn’t care what happened to us and he had not the courage to inform on us.”[12]

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Galway mountains

Such warnings were not entirely the products of a frustrated host. Blanche came one night with word of an approaching RIC patrol, but that it would be better to stay put until more was known. As foretold, a police squad appeared at the foot of the hill, but the flooded footpath from the rain before kept them at bay like a moat.

“Peelers are like cats,” Blanche said sagely, “they don’t like to wet their feet.”[13]

Moving Out

The three fugitives could not rely on rain and luck indefinitely, particularly not in lodgings as loathsome as that cattle-shed. After four days, they agreed it was time to move. They stopped by the Blanche house, where Mrs Blanche fed and housed them for the night before giving them a haversack full of food for the road ahead.

Mellows had told them of an uncle he had in Scariff, Co. Clare, and with no other plan in mind, the trio struck south in that direction. They kept walking until reaching a wide river, being lucky enough to find the only bridge for miles. Eschewing roads and open spaces, they entered some woods where they had another bit of good fortune in chancing on a stream which provided the chance of a wash, the first for a fortnight.

The rest of the day was spent pouring over the map Mellows had brought for the best way to Scariff. They had finished the last of the bread in Mrs Blanche’s haversack and, after reciting the rosary in Irish, the trio took the plunge and started out across some highlands.

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Liam Mellows (right) with friend

Night fell and the men found themselves tripping over roots and potholes. Mellows had an electric torch but that was soon broken and useless. A road was chanced upon but the men were unable to decide if it was one of the routes marked on their map. Seeing some cottages along the road, Monahan decided to inquire for directions.

The owner of the first house offered to walk the travellers in the right direction. When Mellows told him who they were and why they were on the road at night in the first place, the man said in a thick Clare accent: “Oh, holy smoke, sure your lives aren’t worth a thraneen. The soldiers are searching the country everywhere and if they come across you, they’ll shoot you.”

As it turned out, their cheerful guide led the three runaways to the wrong path. A generous soul, Hynes was to interpret this as deliberate in case they were caught while exposed on the public road.

After the Clare man had left them, the trio reached a crossroads and saw in the dark the shape of something lurking nearby. Mellows whipped out his revolver and crept over but soon returned, exasperated.

“Damnit,” he said, “it is only an old ass.”

“Well,” quipped Monahan, “he can be thankful for once in his life for being an ass instead of a peeler.”[14]

‘Many are Cold…’

Leaving the crossroads, they trudged uphill, through the drizzle. Weak with hunger after finishing the last of Mrs Blanche’s bread, they resorted to dragging themselves up on their hands and knees, stopping to rest between two big square rocks, the only shelter in sight. By then, they were so exhausted that they fell asleep on the ground, waking two hours later, sore all over their bodies.

“How do you feel?” Mellows asked.

“Rotten,” Hynes replied. “I am shivering with cold.”

Mellows could at least see the funny side. “Remember,” he said, parodying Matthew 22:14, “many are cold but few are frozen.”

Hynes coyly refrained from recording in his later account where he had told Mellows to go, only that it was not a cold place.

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Clare mountains

At least the rain had cleared by the time morning broke. Studying the map, they found that their path was leading them away from their destination of Scariff. The one they wanted was three miles away, a daunting distance for weary men on empty stomachs.

Rummaging through his bag for any spare crumbs, Hynes found nothing more than a sole potato. Even that was better than nothing but, as he divided it three-ways, the traitorous vegetable revealed itself to be rotten in its core.

Hynes had had enough.

“Come on, lads,” he called to the other two, desperation turning into bravado. “I’m going to get breakfast if I were to shoot my way to it.”

Striking out, they came across salvation in the form of a farmhouse by the road. Venturing ahead, Hynes peered through the open door to a sight both exquisite and close to unbearable:

The table was laid for breakfast and I feasted my eyes on a most beautiful home-made cake about 15″ in diameter and 12″ high. I had to exercise all my will power to refrain the savage desire to go and grab that cake and hop it.

Instead, he asked the young woman by the hearth-fire for a cup of tea for him and his companions. She immediately went to work at providing some old-fashioned country hospitality, which included considerably more than tea:

That cake that I mentioned was a feed for six men, but by the time that we had devoured two blue duck eggs each and our share of the cake I doubt if there was enough left to give the man of the house his breakfast, who by the way came in as we were eating, and the only thing that troubled him was that we would kill ourselves eating.[15]

The travellers offered payment for the food, but the woman stoutly rebuffed them. “What did ye get but a cup of tea?” she said.

When it was time to go, the couple waved their guests off, wishing them godspeed. The man of the house had given them directions to Scariff, showing not the least bit of curiosity when asked for a short cut across the mountains, despite the impracticalities of such rough terrain.

“But he was a Clareman, and Claremen never wonder at anything,” explained Monahan.

Leaving the road, the fugitives made their way into some bogland. Heavy with food, they decided to sleep out the heat of the day and continue on after dark. After finding a patch of dry ground, on which they made impromptu bedding out of heather, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes fell soundly asleep.

The sensation of something soft and wet on his face awoke Monahan. He found himself staring into the mournful brown eyes of the pointer dog that was working its tongue on him. Sitting up, Monahan saw that Hynes was on his knees, saying his prayers with his hand ominously tucked in the pocket of his overcoat.[16]

The Royal Commission

As he reviewed the state of West Galway in May for his monthly report, County Inspector Rutledge noted how the public mood in Galway town, Gort and Tuam was “sullen and unsatisfactory”. That things were not worse were due to, in the RIC Inspector’s professional opinion, the imposition of martial law, backed by the thousand soldiers camped in Cranmore.

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British soldiers posing in Dublin with a captured republican flag

As far as Rutledge was concerned, he and his employers in Dublin Castle had had a lucky escape:

It is pretty plain now that the rebellion was precipitated and if it had been deferred until later when all was ready it would not have been confined to the Districts of Galway and Gort but would have embraced the whole County and we could not have held it.

His counterpart for East Galway, County Inspector Clayton, was not quite so alarmist. Nonetheless, he also reported on the “disturbed and unsettled” conditions, particularly around Athenry, which he attributed to the rebel leaders having so far avoided arrest.[17]

Both inspectors attended the Royal Commission on the 27th May, inside the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, as the British state ponderously tried to make sense of what had happened. A succession of RIC officials spoke before a panel of Westminster-appointed worthies, headed by Lord Hardinge as chairman, testifying to the state of the country in the lead-up to the rebellion.

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Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin

When the attention turned to Galway, one of the few counties where fighting had occurred, ‘William Mellowes’ was given a star role as Rutledge described how he had arrived in March 1915, setting up headquarters in Athenry, an area long troubled by agrarian unrest and thus ideal recruiting ground for Mellows and the secret society he represented.

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Lord Hardinge

There had been such a sect in Galway since 1882, Rutledge explained, though he neglected to give the name of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Instead, the most common term used throughout the Commission was ‘Sinn Féin’, with its participants as ‘Sinn Féiners’, albeit more to describe a general attitude than any specific organisation.

Lord Hardinge: Do you think the fear of conscription had much effect in increasing the ranks of the Sinn Féiners?

Rutledge: I think so, amongst the ordinary village boys.

Lord Hardinge: Shirkers?

Rutledge: Shirkers. They won’t fight for England.

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Father Fahy, who convinced the Volunteers to quit

The attitude of the clergy during Easter Week presented a notable dichotomy for the Commission to consider. Clayton drew attention to how a considerable number of priests had lent assistance to the ‘Sinn Feiners’. And yet it was a priest – Clayton was unsure as to his name – who ended the insurrection when he persuaded the rebels to disband, though not before he had had a contest of wills with an intransigent Mellows.

Lord Hardinge: What happened to Mellows?

Clayton: He is on the run.[18]

‘The Elusive Mellows’

And on the run he remained, his exploits rapidly elevating him into a folk hero. Even the Connacht Tribune, which had dismissed the Rising as German-inspired folly, could not help but revel in the drama with the headline: THE ELUSIVE MELLOWS – HOW HE HAS OUTMANOEUVRED THE AUTHORITIES – STORIES THAT READ LIKE A ROMANCE.

“Romance, comedy and tragedy are strangely blended in the stories of the Rising in County Galway,” continued the newspaper:

Whether it be that Captain Mellows and the last of his army got beyond the cordon, I know not. Stories here are in abundance, but it is difficult to trace them to their sources.

I heard, for instance, that Mellows had a particularly fast motor vehicle, which he used to effect, and which has since been captured; that he escaped to Connemara in a turf boat; that the police are looking for a honeymoon couple, the bride being no other than one of the most daring of the leaders; that the insurgents escaped over the mountains, got out to sea by the Shannon, and were now on their way to the States; and a thousand other yarns of a similar flimsy texture.[19]

As it turned out, the article would prove to be remarkably prescient on a number of points. Perhaps not about the honeymooners or the boat trip to Connemara, but Mellows would indeed go about in feminine guise as part of his flight out of the country to the New World.

Others were not so fortunate. Michael Kelly was part of the Clarinbridge Company of the Galway Volunteers, and as such had been present at the abortive assaults on the RIC barracks at Clarinbridge and then Oranmore. While marching out of Moyode Castle with the rearguard, he had happened upon two priests cycling in the same direction, desperate to talk to Mellows.

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Moyode Castle

Kelly sat on a windowsill inside Limepark House, listening in as Fathers Fahy and O’Farrell did their best to persuade Mellows and the other officers to give up in the face of insurmountable odds. When the orders were finally delivered to the assembled ranks to scatter, Kelly had been among those who quietly slipped back home.[20]

Unfree

The hopes that that would be the end of it were dashed when, four days later on the 3rd May, Kelly was arrested at his house and taken to the nearby RIC barracks. A day later, he was moved to Galway Jail and forced to share a packed cell with his former comrades-in-arms. After ten more days of this, the prisoners were marched through Galway, jeered at by onlookers, to the station, and then taken by train to Dublin.

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Prisoners from the Rising being marched by British soldiers through the ruins of Dublin

In contrast to Galway, the prisoners received a jollier reception from the Dublin crowd. Not that it made a difference, as they were taken to Richmond Barracks, where they were again forced into overcrowded cells, sometimes twenty-four of them to a room. Three or four days later, they were put on a cattle-boat, the subsequent journey being a fraught one for some, as they feared they would be sunk by a German U-boat. Other prisoners made the best of their plight, singing and dancing to while away the time.

Upon arriving in Glasgow, they were separated into two batches. Kelly was in the one to be lodged in Perth Jail, along with some Wexford men from their own failed Rising. As they arrived in Perth Railway Station, a crowd there “thought we were deserters from the British Army and boohed us.”

The prisoners were undaunted: “We returned the boohs with a vengeance.”

Kelly remained in Perth for two months until he was moved to Frongoch Camp, and then again to Wormwood Scrubs, where he was startled at the amount of information the authorities had on him:

They knew every move I made for the twelve months previous to the Rising. They knew all about the dances I attended, the girls I was friendly with, and that I carried a gun in Galway on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade 1916.

They asked me did I know what I was going to do when I was called out on Easter Week. I answered that I did, and that I was looking for the freedom of my country as any decent man would do in an unfree country.”

Kelly was fortunate in that he was released at the end of August and could return to Ireland. Others continued to languish in their respective gaols, unsure as to what the future held for them.[21]

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Prisoners at Frongoch Camp

Found in Clare

Elsewhere, in Clare, Michael Maloney set out one morning in May in order to search for a filly of his that had jumped out of its paddock the evening before and escaped into the Knockjames Mountains. Accompanied by his greyhound, Maloney had travelled a good distance into the highlands when he spotted his filly in the distance. As he headed towards it, he came across three men kneeling on the grass as if in prayer.

When Maloney bade them a good day, one of the strangers rose to his feet and returned the greeting in a Dublin voice. Despite the incongruous accent, Maloney sensed that the troika were refugees from Galway where the Rising had broken out on the previous month. He assured them that, as an Irish Volunteer, he was one of them. The Dubliner asked if he knew a Seán McNamara of Crusheen, to which Maloney replied yes, he was his superior officer.

With that, Mellows was able to relax, as were the other two, Monahan and Hynes. Maloney directed them to an old hut nearby, where he brought them food. Leaving his guests there, Maloney went to McNamara with his discovery. Unlike in Galway, the Clare Volunteers had not been out during Easter Week, deterred by the contradictory orders and the confusion they had engendered, but their companies had not fallen apart afterwards either. They continued to meet and drill, taking care to do so in remote locations, away from the prying eyes of the RIC.

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Irish Volunteers

McNamara was able to collect some money from his subordinates. He contacted Father Crowe, a sympathetic priest, who also raised funds from amongst his fellow clergymen. These amounts were handed to Maloney who brought them up to lamsters in the mountains.

Also of financial assistance was Michael Colivert, the leader of the Limerick Volunteers and a notable IRB figure. While passing through Clare, he was alerted to the presence of Mellows and company. Colivert arranged to meet McNamara at the train station the following day, where he told him to come to Limerick if he received a telegram later that evening.

When the telegram came, McNamara duly went to the city, to be handed an envelope with £100 worth of notes inside, a gift from the renowned Daly family (Ned Daly being one of the executed 1916 leaders, while his sister Kathleen was Tom Clarke’s wife). Despite the failure of the Rising, the harsh consequences of which was still being felt, the tightly-knit network of republicans and ardent nationalists, and the support it could offer, remained intact throughout the country.[22]

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IRB leaders, left to right – John Daly, Tom Clarke (who married Daly’s niece) and Seán Mac Diarmada

Idling Away

The money was duly passed on to the three runaways. Not that they had an immediate need of it, stuck as they were in their mountain hut, and so it was forwarded to Hynes’ wife in Athenry, along with a message for her to take to Dublin to let their friends know they were alive. Due to the military presence throughout the country, Maloney offered to act as a courier to Galway, travelling there under the guise of attending a cattle-fair that he knew was on in Athenry.

This cover story was not enough to deter the British soldiers at Gort Station from stopping Maloney, who had to think quickly, as Hynes described:

After asking his name and a few other questions they ordered him to take off his books. “Look here, mate,” he said to the officer, “I take off them boots every night and put them on every day and that’s quite enough for me. If you want to pinch them you will have to take them off yourself.”

While the Tommies were occupied in pulling off his footwear, presumably for any dispatches surreptitiously stored on the soles, Maloney helped himself to a smoke on his pipe, burning away the slip of paper hidden there. It had been a close call, as Hynes knew: “If they found that note, they would be down on top of us before anyone could warn us.”[23]

Maloney continued on to Athenry and delivered the message to Mrs Hynes verbally instead. He took care to sign the registry at the hotel he stayed in with a false name.

For five months, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes remained on the mountainside. While a lengthy stay, it was not an unpleasant one; indeed, Monahan was to remember it in almost idyllic terms: “The three of us were never lonely or silent; we always had a lot to discuss and argue about.”

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Liam Mellows (second from the right) with friends, including Alf Monahan (far right)

Topics included the nature around them, which for the city-slickers Mellows and Monahan was a novelty, and the what-might-have-beens of Irish history, as well as the possible things-to-come for their own time. The trio enjoyed a rich fantasy life, from the names they would bestow on the battleships and regiments soon to be at their disposal, to the self-deprecating predictions Mellows made for when they would be old and grey. He would be in a workhouse, he told the others, and relying on them to bring him tobacco in between their jobs as street-sweepers.

“Of course, this was all good fun,” Monahan wrote later, a sadder but wiser man. “None of us ever thought at that time that those who fought for the Republic would ever want – much less end their days in the Workhouse.”[24]

‘The Most Perfect Nun in Appearance’

When news from Dublin came in October that the remaining leadership of the Irish Volunteers wished for Mellows to go to the United States, it was treated as an intrusion rather than a deliverance, with its subject resisting as best he could. “Liam was always more anxious about his pals than about himself,” said Hynes.

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Eamon Corbett

He had already declined an earlier offer in July. The places booked on the American-bound ship were instead given to Pat Callanan and Eamon Corbett. Both men had served under Mellows in Galway during Easter Week and were similarly hiding out, in their case in Co. Kilkenny. When asked, they agreed to go, and succeeded in reaching sanctuary in the United States.[25]

Mellows tried again to pass on the opportunity to someone else. He suggested Hynes but the other man refused. In any case, the orders were definite: Mellows had to go.

Maloney was able to acquire a bottle of brown hair dye for Mellows, the substance turning his distinctly fair locks a pleasing auburn. Combined with the matching suit Maloney had also procured, Mellows “looked quite the dude,” as Monahan admiringly recalled. When Maloney came by with a motor car, Monahan and Hynes waved Mellows off from the doorway of the bothan, both feeling very lonely now that their friend and commander had gone.[26]

Instructions were for McNamara to meet Mellows at Kearney’s Castle and take him to Father Crowe’s house in Rosliven, near Ennis. The priest was expecting the pair when they arrived at night and had managed to procure two nuns’ habits for Mellows and a woman who was to accompany him. Mellows had gone in clerical camouflage before as a priest. A nun would be a similar choice of disguise, if a step more audacious given the discrepancy in sex.

McNamara had left before the two ‘sisters’ departed from Father Crowe’s house the next morning, and so missed the chance to see Mellows in his habit. It was left to the churchman to fill him in, when the pair were chatting about the whole story a week or so afterwards:

[Father Crowe] said that on the morning after Mellows’ arrival in Rosliven, he was saying Mass in his house and [the door] was being answered by [the] housekeeper. The door of the oratory opened, “and, God forgive me, as I knew it was Liam and his lady friend nothing could prevent me from turning round to see what Liam looked like.”

Mellows had been, in Father Crowe’s eyes, “the most perfect nun in appearance that I ever saw.”[27]

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The veil Mellows wore as part of his disguise as a nun, now in the National Museum of Ireland

Going to America

Mellows later recounted his westward adventures to a friend, Mary Flannery Woods, whose Dublin home he would often use as a hideaway in the tumultuous years to come. Driven from Scariff to Cork, he was then taken by boat to Waterford. Poor weather held him back by three weeks until he could reach Liverpool. Finding a ship bound for New York from Plymouth, he signed on as a stoker, “a job for which he was physically unfit,” according to Woods, as he would soon discover.

0619The awkward absence of union papers necessary for sailor work was sidestepped when Mellows got the man responsible for the crew’s papers drunk on whiskey while they were sharing a train-carriage to Plymouth. When the other man passed out, Mellows threw the bag containing the forms out of the window. With the mysterious disappearance of everyone’s paperwork, the ship had no choice but to sail out regardless.

Other obstacles appeared – and prevailed over. Mellows had given his name as ‘O’Ryan’ when first signing on board, only to forget it when he gave another. When asked about this discrepancy, Mellows ‘explained’ how the second name was the Irish version of O’Ryan. Mellows laughed heartily as he recounted the dodge to Woods.

Stoking was not for the faint of heart or weak in form, involving as it did the constant shovelling of coal into a raging furnace. So intense was the heat that the sweat-soaked men were forced to strip to the skin. Mellows would sometimes be so exhausted at the end of a shift that he fell asleep before washing, a negligence that resulted in the dirt and perspiration hardening all over him. Removing the layer was “like tearing off one’s skin”, as he described it to Woods, who could only regard her friend with sympathy:

Liam must have suffered terribly on that voyage. Knowing nothing about stokering and afraid to being discovered, he feverishly watched the others working in this inferno, copying their behaviour, using nautical terms, swaggering, spitting even, a habit he detested in anyone.

At least one co-worker was not deceived, and tore a huge shovel out of the hands of an undersized Mellows before showing the landlubber how it should be done, throwing in some choice and salty words as he did so. Despite the toil and embarrassment, Mellows would regard the whole experience, even the worst of it, with fondness: “Affectionately he spoke of the rough kindness and great-heartedness of this man for all his swearing.”[28]

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Stokers at work

When the steamer reached New York, Mellows had one final trick to play, the last of many since the start of the journey. As he walked with the rest of his shipmates along the waterfront, they entered a pub where a fight was in progress.

“Come on, boys, let us get into this,” Mellows shouted, grabbing a chair as if for a weapon. He rushed through the bar until reaching a backdoor, whereupon he slipped out, shaking off the rest of the crew for good.[29]

Thus ended his inglorious, if necessary, career at sea, as well as an Odyssey which had begun in April from the collapse of the Galway Rising and ended in a sidestepped brawl in New York. His exile in the Land of the Free was about to begin, throughout which he would endeavour to play his part in the war for Irish liberty. Kathleen Ni Houlihan was not going to liberate herself, after all.

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New York, ca. 1900

‘The Most Capable Man’

Having accepted the offer to go to America in place of Mellows, Callanan and Corbett had arrived in Liverpool, where they attached themselves to the small circle of fellow fugitives from Ireland. After five weeks, a vacancy for a sailor opened, and it was agreed upon by the group that it was to go to their most wanted member, Donal O’Hannigan. A few days later and another two such jobs opened, allowing Callanan and Corbett to sign on as coal passers on a ship bound for Philadelphia.

The journey took nineteen days across the Atlantic, made particularly tense by the threat of German submarine. As the ship approached the mouth of the Delaware, orders were given to extinguish all lights on board to make it a less visible target. After the crew went ashore in Philadelphia, the two Irishmen slipped away and travelled to New York, where they stayed with O’Hannigan, who had arrived before them.

Cunning, silence and exile had enabled the fugitives to survive. Now they were in neutral territory where a support system of like-minded expats and revolutionary brothers-in-arms awaited them in the form of Clan na Gael, an Irish-American society with a Fenian pedigree and republican aims.

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Five Fenians – John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Underwood O’Connell, Henry Mulleda and John McClure – posing for an 1871 photo in America

To make their introductions, Callanan and Corbett visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper and met its editor, John Devoy. A leading member of Clan na Gael. Devoy was informed by his guests that Mellows was still in Ireland but due to join them soon. Satisfied, Devoy gave the pair some money, and they then waited for a week before Corbett moved to California, leaving Callanan in New York with O’Hannigan. Hearing no further news about Mellows, Callanan grew concerned – until he was awoken one December morning by someone nudging him in bed.

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John Devoy

It was none other than Mellows at long last. When the reunited friends went down to the Gaelic American building – seemingly a rite of passage by now for the Irish exiles – Devoy, Callanan remembered, “was very pleased with Mellows and said he was the most capable man who had so far arrived in America.” Devoy would act as Mellows’ mentor, employer and, in time, bitter rival.[30]

December also saw the arrival in Dublin of a hundred and forty-six Galway men on the 23rd, who had been released the day before from Frongoch Camp. They were joined the next morning by the remaining three hundred inmates, upon which the former prisoners marched from the North Wall, along the quays, watched by the assembled crowds who cheered at the sight of them.

The men themselves were more subdued. Many looked pale and haggard after sustaining for months on a diet of porridge, leavened only by gifts of food from home. In addition to malnutrition, Frongoch had been stricken for the past three weeks by an influenza-like epidemic, the effects of which were still evident on some of its victims, while the temperature in their cells had varied from chillingly cold or sweltering hot, without a happy medium. Having survived such hardships, the newly-freed returnees kept their silence as they reached the city centre, save for a cheer when passing by the General Post Office.[31]

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

References

[1] Kelly, Michael (BMH / WS 1564) pp. 9-10

[2] Monahan, Alfred (BMH / WS 298), p. 27

[3] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 15

[4] Molloy, Brian (BMH / WS 345), p. 14

[5] Howley. Peter (BMH / WS 1379), p. 13

[6] Monahan, pp. 26-8

[7] Howley, p. 14 ; Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[8] Monahan, p. 25

[9] Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[10] Ibid, 20/05/1916

[11] Monahan, p. 28

[12] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), p. 20

[13] Monahan, p. 28

[14] Hynes, pp. 20-1

[15] Ibid, pp. 22-4

[16] Monahan, pp. 35-6

[17] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8541

[18] Irish Times, 29/05/1916

[19] Connacht Tribune, 20/05/1916

[20] Kelly, pp. 6-7, 10-1

[21] Ibid, pp. 11-2

[22] McNamara, Seán (BMH / WS 1047), pp. 10-13

[23] Hynes, pp. 28-9

[24] Monahan, pp. 41-3

[25] Hynes, p. 28 ; Fogarty, Michael (BMH / WS 673), p. 9

[26] Monahan, p. 45

[27] Ibid, pp. 13-4

[28] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 19-21

[29] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), p. 35

[30] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 405), pp. 4-6

[31] Connacht Tribune, 30/12/1916

Bibliography

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Callanan, Patrick, WS 405

Czira, Sidney, WS 900

Fogarty, Michael, WS 673

Howley, Peter, WS 1379

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kelly, Michael, WS 1564

McNamara, Seán, WS 1047

Molloy, Brian, WS 345

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records