Shadows and Substance: Seán Mac Eoin and the Slide into Civil War, 1922

In the Interests of the Country

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Seán Mac Eoin

Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.

As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:

I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.[1]

As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:

Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.

For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.[2]

This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).

An Extremist Speaks

Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:

Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.[3]

Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.[4]

Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.[5]

Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.[6]

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National Concert Hall, site of the former National University where the Treaty debates took place

‘Red with Anger’

For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.

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Seán T. O’Kelly

When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”

“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.[7]

Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.

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Kathleen O’Callaghan

Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.[8]

Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.[9]

That Gang of Mine

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Dan Breen

Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”

The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?[10]

Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.[11]

Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.

He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”

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Men of an IRA Flying Column

Only One Army

When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.

Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.

Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.[12]

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Pro-Treaty poster

By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.

As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”[13]

Machinations

He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.

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Éamon de Valera

On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”[14]

The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).[15]

As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.

Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.[16] 

The Army of the Republic

Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:

At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.[17]

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Michael Collins

The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.

Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.

“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.

“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.

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Richard Mulcahy

As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”[18]

This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”[19]

For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.

Securing Athlone

Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.

Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.

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Athlone Bridge over the Shannon River

Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.

The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.

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British soldiers leaving Ireland, 1922

The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.

After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.

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British soldiers lowering the Union Jack in Dublin Castle, 1922

The First Glorious Day

Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.

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Interior of Athlone Castle

“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”

Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!

This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.

“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.

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Illustration of the siege of Athlone, 1691, by artist William Barnes Wollen

Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”

After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.

Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.

As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.

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Athlone Castle

To Fight or Not to Fight

Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.

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Seán Mac Eoin, surrounded by his officers, raising the tricolour after Athlone Barracks

After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”

When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”

In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:

On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.

No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.

And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.[20]

Maintaining Athlone

The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.

He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”

Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.

Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:

Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.

Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.

I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.

The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.

Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”

That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.

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Free State soldiers on parade

He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:

The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.

The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.

This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.[21]

As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.

In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.

The West Awakens

The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:

As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.

That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.[22]

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Arthur Griffith

A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.

“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.

The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.

Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:

Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.

Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:

As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.

And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.[23]

The Sligo Situation

The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.

Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.

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Anti-Treaty men leaning out of a window in Sligo, 1922 (full video on YouTube)

Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.

Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.

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IRA men, standing to attention outside a hotel entrance

It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.

Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.

Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.

Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.

There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sligo

Success in Sligo

This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers onboard an armoured car with a machine-gun

As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?

After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.

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Seán Mac Eoin addressing the crowd in Sligo from a window (note the pistol in hand)

He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.

As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.

Arthur Griffith addresses an election meeting in Sligo Town, 1922
Arthur Griffith addresses the crowd in Sligo town square, April 1922

The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.[24]

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Footage of Seán Mac Eoin helping to clear the road (full clip on YouTube)

A Death in Athlone

The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.

“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.

“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.

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George Adamson

Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.

Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[25]

Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[26]

Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.[27]

This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.

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George Adamson’s funeral passing through Athlone

Securing the Midlands

Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.

While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.

When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.

At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.

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IRA fighters, all in civilian dress

Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.[28]

Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.[29]

Squabbles in the Dáil

Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.

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Free State soldiers outside Kilkenny Castle, where the Anti-Treatyites had held out in a last stand before surrendering, May 1922

The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.

But not all agreed on the solution.

Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:

At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.

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Éamon de Valera

Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:

De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.

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Seán Mac Eoin

Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.

De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.

As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”[30]

An Impossible Situation

Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”[31]

Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.

All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.

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Harry Boland

At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.

It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.

Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.

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Kathleen Clarke

Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”[32]

At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.

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The military leaders meet at the Mansion House, May 1922. From left to right: Seán Mac Eoin (in uniform), Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows (video on YouTube)

Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.

She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.[33]

In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”

The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.[34]

Pointing Fingers

The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.

In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:

They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.[35]

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Rory O’Connor

At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.

As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:

I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.[36]

Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.

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Free State poster, denigrating the Anti-Treatyites as latecomers in the previous war against Britain

A Longford Wedding

Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.

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St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford

Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.

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The newly-weds (video on YouTube)

Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.

But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.[37]

Or perhaps not.

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Seán Mac Eoin on his wedding day with Alice Cooney

A Return to Sligo

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Joseph Sweeney

Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.

Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.[38]

Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.

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Front page of anti-Treaty newspaper

Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.

It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.[39]

Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11

[3] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 23-4

[4] Seán Mac Eoin Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P151/80

[5] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?, p. 11

[6] Irish Times, 20/12/1921

[7] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 134

[8] Ibid, p. 314

[9] Irish Times, 09/01/1922

[10] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/79

[11] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 168

[12] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/124

[13] Ibid, P151/162

[14] Irish Times, 27/08/1921

[15] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1786

[16] Ibid, P151/1835

[17] Ibid, P151/1837

[18] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 424-5

[19] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), p. 235

[20] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/131

[21] Ibid, P151/1809

[22] Ibid, P151/1812

[23] Sligo Independent, 15/04/1922

[24] Ibid, 22/04/1922

[25] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[26] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[27] Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[28] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922, 05/05/1922 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 375

[29] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[30] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), p. 368

[31] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[32] Ibid, P151/1813 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[33] McDonnell, Vera (BMH / WS 1050), pp. 9-10

[34] Irish Times, 10/05/1922

[35] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1804

[36] Ibid

[37] Longford Leader, 24/06/1922

[38] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 287

[39] Sligo Independent, 08/07/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

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

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

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

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

University College Dublin Archives

Seán Mac Eoin Papers

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Sligo Independent

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

Bureau of Military History Statement

McDonnell, Vera, WS 1050

The Treachery of Peace: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley and the Politics of the Civil War, 1922 (Part V)

A continuation of: The Self-Deceit of Honour: Liam Lynch and the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

One Wet Morning

Sitting by an open window on the morning of the 28th June 1922, the yellow lights of the Dublin tramway blurred by the drizzle, the journalist who would publish under the penname ‘Nichevo’ looked outside at the sound of marching boots:

Irish troops were on the move. Down the street they tramped in the misting rain, two long files of them on either side of the road, strapping men and whistling boys, equipped with all the cruel paraphernalia of modern war.

An hour had passed since the journalist had seen the last of the soldiers when the clock struck four and Dublin shook. From the distance could be heard the boom of artillery, punctuated by the snap of rifles and a harsh machine-gun rattle. “The whole city seemed to be alive with noise,” he wrote. “Shots echoed and re-echoed from the dripping walls…The battle for the Four Courts had begun.”

Venturing out in the afternoon, ‘Nichevo’ joined the thick throng of spectators lining the quays, across from the centre of attention. For all their bombast, the 18-pound shells from the National Army artillery had made little impact on the Four Courts, save for a few nicks and dents on the walls. Still, the sight alone was too much for some onlookers to bear in silence.

“I never thought it would come to this,” said one elderly man, leaning over to spit into the Liffey waters.

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National Army troops assault the Four Courts

An End and the Start

The bombardment continued unrelentingly that evening, and all night, and then throughout the following day. News filtered to the crowd that several buildings in nearby Sackville (now O’Connell) Street had also been seized by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with snipers taking up position on rooftops. “Now and then an armoured car would dash through the streets, but one saw very few signs of military activity, although one heard plenty of them.”

One thing ‘Nichevo’ could see was that the Four Courts, a newly blown hole in its flank, could not hold out for much longer. As the odds of the beleaguered defenders lessened, their compatriots elsewhere in the city centre conversely grew bolder, emerging out of cover to grab food, bedding, kitchen utensils and anything else of use for a drawn-out siege.

Things finally grew quiet that night, as if the artillery guns had tired themselves out. Then came the thundering denouement on the morning of the 30th:

An ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin. Compared to this, the booming of the 18-pounder gun had been the merest murmur. Windows were smashed, houses shook from roof to cellar, the sky was darkened with a cloud of flying debris as the Four Courts disappeared into smoke.

A mine had detonated inside the Four Courts. The building complex was left in ruins, along with the resistance of its defenders. Grimy, red-eyed men and boys were led out, some shaken, others grimly contumacious, and escorted by green-coated soldiers towards the Jameson’s Distillery, where they would be held until transferred to Mountjoy Prison.

“It must be all over now,” wrote ‘Nichevo’. While Sackville Street remained a battleground, there was now a lull in the fighting, and a stillness had settled over the city. “Can it be nearing the end? Please God.”[1]

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The ruined remains of the Four Courts

Regrouping

But, as far as some were concerned, it was most certainly not over.

Despite his capture as part of the garrison, Ernie O’Malley was able to slip out with several others through a side-door in the Jameson Distillery. The escapees hurried over the Church Street Bridge and walked along the river until they were opposite the still-smouldering Four Courts, the site of their defiant stand mere hours before.

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Church Street Bridge, with the Four Courts in the background

After pausing to gaze with morbid fascination at the gaping holes and crumbling upper storeys, the party hurried on. The night was spent in a friendly house before they travelled the next morning to Bray, first by tram and then on foot, hoping to link up with their compatriots. Instead they found only to find a smoking ruin in place of its barracks, its anti-Treaty garrison having set the building alight before withdrawing to Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where the rest of the IRA in South Dublin were mustering. O’Malley could not help but sourly wonder where they had been when the Four Courts needed them.

Regardless, he and his party commandeered a motor – carjacking being a common occurrence in Ireland by then – and drove to Blessington. Taking charge as the most senior officer present, O’Malley ordered for the village to be fortified as best it could, with barricades thrown up and mines scattered on the roads leading in. The inhabitants probably did not appreciate the intrusion, but no matter.

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Blessington, Co. Wickow, today

The next day, about seventy men from the Tipperary IRA arrived in a ragtag flotilla of char-a-bancs, Crossley tenders and motorcars. Combined, the Dubliners and the newcomers now numbered one hundred and thirty. Equipped with mines and explosives, as well as their firearms, they posed a formidable challenge. At last, O’Malley felt he could take the fight to the enemy.

By midnight, they were driving in a line towards the city centre, until the news that their colleagues had already decided to evacuate their positions in Sackville Street stopped them in their tracks. Crestfallen, the convoy returned to Blessington for the night.[2]

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Sackville Street, post-fighting

Cutting a Swathe

At least the setback allowed O’Malley time to garner a better sense of the outside situation. Better informed than the Dubliners, the Tipperary men told him that Liam Lynch was currently in Limerick, having resumed the post of IRA Chief of Staff. But this update did not come with any direction on how to proceed, a common complaint among the Anti-Treatyites, many of whom were left floundering in the first few critical days of the war.

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Ernie O’Malley

But not O’Malley. He had been urging for more aggressive moves from the start, frustrated by what he saw as Lynch’s passivity. Finally free to act, O’Malley decided to take his newfound war-band outside the city in search of easier targets. Once Munster was back under IRA control, he believed, they could then return to Dublin and settle the score.

Leaving some men to hold Blessington, O’Malley drove out with his mixed band of Tipperary émigrés and Dubliners. They approached Carlow, where an attack on the Free State-held town was considered, but that was put aside in favour of pressing on to Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in response to a call for aid.

They arrived at the town to the crack of gunfire as the Pro-Treatyites defended the castle from their IRA besiegers. O’Malley led his warband in blowing a hole in the outer yard gate of the castle with their explosives, followed by the similar demolition of the front entrance, at which point the occupants decided the time had come to wave the white flag. After extracting an oath from the prisoners to fight no more for the Free State, O’Malley allowed them to go free.[3]

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Enniscorthy Castle, Co. Wexford

The next stop on this martial road trip was Ferns, which also fell without much further ado, followed by Borris in Co. Carlow and then Tullow. While contemplating the next moves to be launched against Carlow and Athy, O’Malley sent word to Limerick, asking Lynch for reinforcements to help attack the remaining Free State holdouts before the enemy could regroup.[4]

“Tis in Vain…”

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Séumas Robinson

Had he talked with Séumas Robinson, O’Malley would have known how fruitless such a request would be. The Tipperary men who had arrived to help was only been a fraction of the numbers Robinson, as O/C of the Southern Tipperary Brigade, wanted to send. He had talked with Lynch on the train out of Dublin in the wake of the Four Courts attack, trying his best to persuade the Chief of Staff that the capital was the key to winning.[5]

But Lynch would not hear of it. His orders had been for each of his officers to return to their localities and fight from there. It was in the countryside, Lynch believed, that the war would be decided. Although he did not yet know it, O’Malley was on his own.

Instead of reinforcements, Lynch sent a note on the 10th July, appointing O’Malley to Assistant Chief of Staff. His instructions were to proceed at once to Dublin and organise a staff for himself there, while simultaneously managing the IRA units in Leinster and Ulster. This was a tall order indeed, and O’Malley was momentarily flummoxed before pulling himself together.

“’Tis in vain for soldiers to complain,’ was what Wolfe Tone had written in his diary. It would be a much quoted mantra in the days to come.

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Theobald Wolfe Tone

That was the last he saw of his Tipperary contingent. Having little taste for the unfamiliarity of urban combat, they elected to return to their home county. O’Malley bore no ill will as he shook their hands and even advised them on the best routes to take. All he felt as he watched them drive off in a swirl of dust and a rumble of engines was a pang of loneliness.[6]

Making a Start

Upon arriving back in his home city – by then under enemy occupation – O’Malley swiftly adjusted from warlord to underground operative. His immediate need was a base from which to build his command, and for this a studio room at the top of a Georgian house was found. Its owner was away on holiday, but when his wife warned of seeing suspicious men lurking outside, O’Malley took the hint to find another place.[7]

He moved into number 36 on the prim and proper Ailesbury Road in leafy Donnybrook, from which to plan the next stage in the war. The home was owned by the sympathetic Ellen Humphreys, who had been hiding ‘on the run’ IRA leaders since the struggle against Britain.

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36 Ailesbury Road, Donnybrook, Dublin

“Surely the Staters would never think that we would have the hardihood to use such a well-known house again,” O’Malley reasoned and, for a time, he was correct.[8]

In keeping with his penchant of hiding in plain sight, O’Malley began dressing as flamboyantly as he could, complete with brilliant ties and a hat festooned with peacock feathers, in order to deter anyone from thinking he was someone with anything to hide. As a finishing touch, he would carry a copy of that most mainstream of newspapers, The Irish Times, during his daily jaunts as part of his cover as just another harmless citizen. He did, though, keep a revolver secreted on himself just in case, and practised his quick-draw each morning.[9]

A quick learner in counter-surveillance, O’Malley studied the routes he would take for the day, taking care to differentiate. When the number of enemy patrols increased, including armoured cars and plainclothes teams, O’Malley switched from foot to use of a bicycle in the hope that its speed would grant him an increased chance at escape if recognised.[10]

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National Army soldiers with lorry

Despite the dangers, he preferred the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting with members of his staff or officers visiting from the country, believing that a written note would not have the same impact. Besides, he did not know many of the men he was supposed to be managing.  He might have heard their names or met them briefly, but with no real notion as to their capabilities. Communications with areas outside of Dublin was haphazard, not to mention hazardous, with couriers having to risk hostile territory or friendly areas that had fallen into confusion thanks to the inertia of the months before.[11]

With painful slowness and the steadfast assistance of his staff, O’Malley was able to piece together a picture of the situation he faced, until finally he had something he could report to Lynch about.

Carrying On

O’Malley did his Chief of Staff the courtesy of the unvarnished truth, in that the odds in Dublin were very much not in their favour. Writing to Lynch on the 28th July, he told of how in the city:

Enemy very active and in some cases whole coys [companies] have been picked up. This cannot be prevented, as the men must go to their daily work and there are not sufficient funds on hand to even maintain a strong column.

“We will carry on here as best we can,” O’Malley assured him, “but I am afraid we cannot bring the war home to them very effectively in Dublin.”

At least a flying column had been started, he said, with some operations already under its belt, although O’Malley admitted that he could provide no specifics as he had yet to receive any reports.

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IRA men in Grafton Street, Dublin

Constant enemy sweeps through the city and the arrest of some of his top officers had stifled the rest of the attempted resurgence, moving O’Malley to ask for permission to carry out something ambitious, such as seizing a block of buildings for a day or two before melting away. O’Malley was honest about the slim odds of a successful retreat but surely anything was better than waiting to be picked off?

Showing that he was unafraid to think big, even while in dire straits, O’Malley added that he was arranging for the capture of some leading bigwigs in the Free State. Holding them would present a difficulty, however, and he reached out to Lynch for help: “Could you arrange to look after them if we do not take them?”[12]

Safety First

If O’Malley was choleric, then Lynch was phlegmatic. The Chief of Staff’s main concern in his letter of reply, written from Co. Cork on the 2nd August, was the safety of his subordinate:

In view of the great activity of the enemy, you and other prominent officers here should take the greatest precautions. I would like to be able to rely on your safety to direct command. Keep people from seeing you – send deputies to interview those who must be seen, and direct things by dispatch.

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Liam Lynch

Similarly, Lynch warned against grand gestures which could only result in the irreplaceable loss of what few men and scant equipment they could still muster. As for any prisoners taken, O’Malley would have to keep them where he was, for the situation in the country was too unsettled to be considered secure.

Instead, O’Malley was to focus on sabotaging wires and telegraph poles in order to better isolate enemy posts from each other. As Lynch explained: “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics.”[13]

The next day, a matter of pressing concern had occurred to the Chief of Staff:

Owing to the abuse of the Tricolour by Free Staters during the present hostilities, it has been decided that the Republican flag, when used by us, will bear the letters ‘I.R.’[14]

There is no indication of any IRA unit effecting such a change. There were presumably more important things to worry about, such as survival.

Another problem worthy of Lynch’s micromanaging was the hostility of the press. “Enemy stuff is very vile and shows the steps they are driven to,” he complained. For a man usually impervious to the opinions of others, he could be quite thin-skinned.[15]

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Irish Volunteers with flag

‘We Are in Earnest’

His solution was for O’Malley to murder the editors of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, the two largest newspapers in the country. O’Malley did not go so far as to refuse but, believing that there were worthier targets, he made no effort to implement these particular orders. He pressed for the Cabinet members of the Provisional Government to be targeted instead, but Lynch vetoed that approach on the grounds that the pro-Treaty military posed a more immediate danger.[16]

Hoping to counterbalance enemy propaganda, O’Malley sent a letter to the Irish Independent, on the 19th August, defending the IRA from its media portrayal as made up of “blackguards, brigands, freebooters or ruffians”, and stressing the willingness of the Anti-Treatyites to fight without pay or material gain.

According to O’Malley, only the cause mattered to him and his compatriots: “The Republicans who are engaged in this war are fighting in a just and holy cause – namely, the defence of the Republic to which they have sworn to be faithful.”

Unfortunately, the pent-up frustrations spilled out onto the page of his righteously worded polemic, overwhelming any attempts to sound reasonable. “No vituperation is going to defeat this cause,” O’Malley said, adding petulantly: “The sooner you realise that the better.”[17]

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National Army sentry with a Thompson submachine gun

Lynch also pondered the ways in which the republican message could reach a wider audience. “If our activities and operations only could get fair publishing we would get ahead by leaps and bounds,” he mused on the 30th August. At least reports indicated that civilian attitudes were improving towards the IRA and the republican cause in general, which Lynch attributed to the determination on display: “They realise now we are in earnest and mean to fight.”

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Count Plunkett

Still, public opinion “must be nursed a bit”, though Lynch fell short at explaining precisely how. The only suggestion he made on how to garner popular support was to send Count George Plunkett, the father of the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett, to Rome to protest to the Pope at the denunciations from the pulpits by the bishops and priests in Ireland.[18]

Plunkett had previously been dispatched to the Vatican six years ago, just before the Easter Rising, to ensure that the then-Pope Benedict XV did not condemn the rebellion, so the Count made an inspired choice of papal emissary. The idea chimed in with Lynch’s top-down style of management, with the assumption that if one tier of a hostile hierarchy could be neutralised, then the lower ranks would obligingly fall into line.[19]

Hopes

The war in Dublin had improved little when O’Malley wrote back to his Chief of Staff on the 6th August. He tried to sound cautiously hopeful but came across more as fatalistic: “I have hopes, that is about all: one has to be patient here but certainly the circumstances are most peculiar and it is very difficult to counteract enemy espionage.”

His intelligence officers were hamstrung by being already known to the enemy – yet another unfortunate consequence of fighting former comrades – which made it hard to operate undetected. O’Malley cited one case of information failure when the Beggar’s Bush Barracks was undermanned with only forty Free Staters inside. The news was not forwarded to him until a day and a half later when the opportunity to strike had already passed.

Furthermore, “their propaganda is very insidious and ours is hopeless.”[20]

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Beggar’s Bush Barracks, headquarters of the National Army

His mood had not improved much by the time he wrote again: “There is not much to report on at present,” since he was still waiting for the report on the IRA attempt to isolate Dublin three nights ago on the 5th August. O’Malley would not receive this overdue report until the end of the month, by which time he would have been all too aware of the scale of the disaster and the crippling losses suffered by the Dublin IRA.[21]

Fifty-eight men had been captured out of the hundred and forty-six involved, including their commanding officer. They had set out to demolish five canal or railway bridges connecting the city to the surrounding countryside, only to be intercepted and overwhelmed by the enemy. The armoured vehicles and massed machine-gun fire by the National Army were an advantage that the Anti-Treatyites could not hope to resist in a straight fight.[22]

O’Malley’s hopes remained but not even he, it seemed, could take them seriously. In discussing the IRA in South County Dublin: “This area has not gone into working order as yet but I have ‘hopes’ – the usual ones.”[23]

 

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National Army soldiers with an armoured car

Dying Gamely

Lynch was of little help in advising on the situation, unsurprisingly so given how he lacked a realistic appraisal of his own. The surprise landings by the National Army in early August along the Cork and Kerry coastlines had thrown the IRA units stationed there into disarray, as Lynch admitted to O’Malley on the 18th August, rendering it impossible for them to focus on any one particular threat.

Yet he announced himself as “thoroughly satisfied with the situation now.” The guerrilla war he had always wanted was about to restart in Cork and Kerry, and Lynch had no doubt that “extensive operations will begin immediately” there. His main concern was with the “lying press propaganda” and the impact that may have on morale, as if the numerous setbacks were merely a case of adverse publicity.[24]

On the 4th September, Lynch again cautioned O’Malley against anything too risky. There was to be no “big operations which only result in failure” – a cutting reference to the botched attempt to demolish the Dublin bridges a month ago.[25]

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Liam Deasy

Despite such failures and Lynch’s admonitions, O’Malley continued to chafe at his leash. Five days after receiving his Chief of Staff’s counsel against oversized operations, O’Malley complained to Liam Deasy, O/C of the First Southern Division, that “we are not going to win this war on purely guerrilla tactics as we did on the last war.”

Taking an enemy post, even a small one, would have a far greater impact than their current pin-prick approach, O’Malley believed.

Dublin remained key since there was not much point making the country ungovernable if the Pro-Treatyites continued to hold the capital. “If we could by means of better armament bring the war home to the Staters in the Capital,” he ruminated to Deasy, “it would have an immense effect on the people here and on the people in surrounding Counties.”[26]

It was significant that O’Malley was telling this to someone other than Lynch. Also notable was how O’Malley was not expecting things to change anytime soon. The Chief of Staff was not one to change his mind once it was made up, and the rest of the Anti-Treatyites would just have to learn to live with that fact.

A numbness was seeping into O’Malley’s reports. In response to Lynch’s condolences on the death in action of his brother, he confessed that “to tell the truth I did not feel his loss much as I did not know him very well.” Still, his younger sibling had been “a good kid and died game.”[27]

Speculations and Futility

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Michael Collins

Not everyone was as committed as Lynch or as resigned as O’Malley, with some on both sides wondering if there were not alternatives to the squalor and violence around them. Some of these imaginings centred on Michael Collins, whose death on the 22nd August 1922 was a turning point in more ways than one.

Lynch may have hailed it as the beginning of the end, the glimmer of victory at the end of a dark tunnel, but there were others who wistfully considered what might have been. Upon learning of the ambush planned on Collins at Béal na Bláth, Éamon de Valera was heard remarking that it would be a great pity if his adversary was killed as he would only be succeeded by inferior men.[28]

Dan Breen went further. Though prepared to fiercely resist the Free State, along with the rest of the Tipperary IRA, Breen was open-minded enough to lend his services to the cause of peace if the opportunity arose, at least according to himself:

Michael Collins himself appeared to be on the point of attempting to seek a settlement shortly before his death. It has been said that he had announced (privately) his intention of getting in touch with de Valera in an effort to put an end to the conflict.

He did, undoubtedly, get in touch with Dan Breen, who received a message through an intermediary that Collins wanted to meet him. Breen discussed the message with General Liam Lynch and, with his knowledge and approval, set out for Cork to meet Collins.

Unfortunately, the projected meeting never took place…What would have been the outcome of the projected meeting between Breen and Collins is something on which we can only speculate, and such speculation would now be futile.[29]

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Dan Breen

Overlooking Breen’s irritating tendency to refer to himself in the third person, there are certain hurdles to accepting this account at face value.

For one, while Lynch was certainly aware of the movement towards dialogue emanating from Cork, which he guessed to be a result of Collins’ presence there, he made his disinterest plain to O’Malley: “There can be no negotiations except on the basis of the recognition of the Republic” – which did not leave much room for discussion. The man who Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy believed could act as a moderating influence had turned out to be someone quite different.[30]

Which leaves the last known interaction between Collins and Lynch as a brief correspondence in the press. It was an exchange that only publicly accentuated just how wide the gulf was between the two sides.

Trash

At least the People’s Rights Association of Cork had tried. Attempting to act as an honest broker, this group of concerned citizens forwarded to Collins on the 1st August a letter of reply to their own suggestion of peace it had received from Lynch.

“I wish to inform you that when the Provisional Government cease their attack on us, defensive actions on our part can cease,” Lynch had written. “If the Second Dáil, which is the Government of the Republic, or any other elected Assembly, carry on such Government, I see no difficulty as to the allegiance of the Army.”

In an accompanying letter to Lynch’s, the Association asked Collins if he was willing to arrange a ceasefire on the basis suggested by Lynch. The Commander-in-Chief of the National Army did not mince words in his published reply:

The Government has made it fully clear that its desire is to secure obedience to proper authority. When an expression of such obedience comes from irregular leaders I take it there will no longer be any necessity for armed conflict.

“The time for face-saving is passed,” Collins continued, with an air of finality:

Irregular leaders, political and military, got an opportunity of doing this over a period of seven or eight months. The issue now is very clear. The choice is definitely between the return of the British and the irregulars sending in their arms to the People’s Government, to be held in trust for the people.[31]

‘Obedience to proper authority’, ‘sending in their arms’, ‘to be held in trust’ – less likely possibilities for the likes of Lynch and O’Malley could scarcely have been imagined.

“These scarcely need or deserve comment – we are sick of this sort of trash,” Lynch wrote in disgust at the latest ‘peace offers’ that amounted to nothing more than a demand by the enemy for an unconditional surrender.[32]

A Reluctant Foe

Lynch was more concerned about the impact rumours of such talks might have on morale. There was a palpable sigh of exasperation in a letter of his to O’Malley on the 7th September:

So many private and unauthorised individuals are engaged in endeavouring to bring about peace in various terms, and are putting forward so many different proposals that it is necessary to inform all these individuals that the only body on our side competent to consider any proposals or terms submitted to us, or to put forward terms on which Peace may be concluded is the whole Army Executive.[33]

Lynch was nothing if not protective of his prerogatives.

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Michael Brennan

Collins appeared equally determined to resolve the war on his own terms. When Michael Brennan, who had led the Pro-Treatyites to victory in Limerick, talked with his Commander-in-Chief during the latter’s Munster tour, he came away with the distinct impression that Collins was not on a mission of peace.

“At the same time he was very attached to Cork men like Lynch and Deasy and didn’t want to fight them,” Brennan added.[34]

Which may have been true. But, four months into the Civil War, it was clear that, however little Collins wanted to fight his former friends, he was prepared to do just that. With both him and Lynch convinced they were in the right and that the future of their country hung in the balance, neither leader was prepared to back down, ensuring that this was to be a struggle to the death – for the pair of them.

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The body of Michael Collins at Shanakiel Hospital, Co. Cork, August 1922

The Master or the Servant

The mentioning of the Second Dáil – the body elected in the 1921 election, before the Treaty was signed and the divisions began – and of elected assemblies in general, was a rare one by Lynch, who thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost. Politics and politicians were things best seen and not heard.

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Liam Mellows

Even dabbling in such distractions could be a cause for suspicion. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch said of the left-leaning Liam Mellows.[35]

But Lynch did not refer to the Dáil for its own sake but as part of a strategy to undermine the fledgling enemy state. The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government had come to that exact conclusion when, alongside Collins’ reply to People’s Rights Association of Cork, it delivered a scathing one of its own in regards to Lynch:

He demands in addition that the Dáil elected in June [1922] should abrogate its sovereignty, ignore the mandate it received and base its policy entirely on the lines dictated by Mr Lynch and his associates in utter disregard of the will of the Irish people: that the army should be the master and not the servant of the people, and that the Government created by the people should be allowed to function only in so far as it obeys the orders of that army.

The desire to ignore the decision given by the Irish people in the June elections accounts for the stress laid upon a further meeting of the Second Dáil.[36]

Which, based on Lynch’s own writings, was an accurate enough assessment of his intentions.

Pacts and Power

The Second Dáil had been the body of public representatives elected in the 1921 July general election. To head off the worsening Treaty divisions, a ‘Pact’ had been agreed by both sides, where the candidates from both factions would stand in the 1922 June election without reference to their Treaty positions.

This would allow, it was hoped, for the united front that had served everyone so well before to be preserved. That Collins had allowed other parties such as Labour and the Farmers Party, both of whom accepted the Treaty, to contest the election was seen by many in the anti-Treaty camp as a “flagrant violation” of the agreement, to quote Dan Breen, who himself had stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate.[37]

It became an article of faith among the Anti-Treatyites that because it was the other side who had broken the Pact, everything that resulted was accordingly their fault. O’Malley put it succinctly in another letter to a newspaper, this time the Freeman’s Journal:

The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation but the wiseacres again, agreed to the Pact when they are weak, broke it when they thought they were strong, and achieved only a catastrophe.[38]

Lynch was of like mind on this. When O’Malley reported back on a meeting with Monsignor John O’Hagan, the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, on the priest’s suggestion of a ‘Coalition Government’ – i.e. one with both Anti and Pro-Treatyites serving together – he was sceptical, believing that military success was just around the corner and which would render the need for any such compromise moot.

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Monsignor John O’Hagan

But Lynch, more calculating, signalled his consent: “I would consider it alright, as this would bring us to the position which the P.G. dishonoured, i.e. the De Valera-Collins Pact.” Besides, he cannily noted, belying the usual assessment of him as a political naïf, such an arrangement would give them another angle from which to attack the hated Treaty. They only had to win the one time, Lynch explained, for if the “Treaty is once shelved it is shelved forever.”[39]

Useful Purposes

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Éamon de Valera

Otherwise, Lynch spent very little time pondering the intricacies and possibilities of democracy. A question arose at the start of September when Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, urged his Chief of Staff to do something about de Valera.

The former President of the Republic had been noticeably glum in the past month. He had even, according to Moloney, “contemplated taking public action which would ruin us.” Moloney admitted that the military situation had then been less than ideal but now that the wheel had turned, de Valera must be told, in no uncertain terms, to do nothing to embarrass them.

Also needing attention was the question of whether the anti-Treaty TDs elected in the 1922 election should attend the Third Dáil when it finally opened. If not, should their pro-Treaty counterparts be prevented from doing so as well? Not that it mattered too much, in Moloney’s view, since the Third Dáil in itself was an irrelevance.

“Since the ‘Panel Agreement’ was broken, the second Dáil is the only Government of the Republic,” Moloney said – a viewpoint which conveniently meant that there was no government at all, and certainly not one the IRA need kowtow to.[40]

Lynch was to display no strong feelings either way. For all his talk about the Second Dáil as the Government of the Republic or whatnot, he could “see no useful purpose being served at the moment by trying to get the 2nd Dáil together,” as he told O’Malley.[41]

Total Separation

Neither did Lynch see much use in politicians of any ilk, even ones on the same side. “I am not over anxious as to co-operation of Republican Party. Of course they are doing their best,” Lynch added with a touch of condescension. He did not believe that the IRA and their allied politicians had enough in common to be considered republican equals: “The Army has its mind made up to total separation from England; I do not think that can be said of Party.”[42]

Not that Lynch was against the idea of cooperation per se. While he warned O’Malley against “political people” having any control over military propaganda, the IRA could still “accept all the assistance from them which they are prepared to give”, in what Lynch probably considered a generous concession on his part.[43]

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Armed men in the streets

Lynch planned to hold a meeting of the IRA Executive as soon as he reached the town of Tipperary. During this, he hoped to form an Army Council, consisting of five or six nominees, which would focus on the military and civil concerns that arose. One such member, Lynch suggested, could be “responsible for availing of the many services which Republican Party can render us.”[44]

Who would be serving who in such an arrangement was left in no doubt. In the meantime, Lynch offered his opinion – not his order, he stressed – that anti-Treaty TDs should not attend the Dáil. It was a weak response, verging on indifferent, that showed just how little importance he placed on the matter.[45]

A Life In Hiding

Confined to his administrative duties in 36 Ailesbury Road, O’Malley did his best to make do. At least he had regular visitors in the form of Seán Dowling, the Director of Operations, and his young assistant, Todd Andrews, both of whom would help with the dispatches for the day.

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Sheila Humphreys

In the evenings they would escape the paperwork for half an hour of tennis. Dowling had initially objected on the grounds of it being too risky, exposed as they would be in the back garden but, when O’Malley insisted, even the cautious Dowling began to enjoy himself as they played singles or doubles with the addition of Sheila Humphreys, the 23-year old daughter of the family. O’Malley kept a ball in his pocket in case enemy soldiers were sighted, in which case he would escape out of sight by hitting the ball into a neighbouring garden and then climbing over the fence to ‘retrieve’ it until the danger had passed.[46]

Conversation was another pastime with his guests, whether gossiping about the people involved on either side, many of whom were personal acquaintances of his, or discussions on more cerebral topics such as the philosophy of Stoicism. It was a school of thought that had served him well during the War of Independence. As O’Malley recounted those days, Andrews “seemed to detect a note of pride in his accounts of his ability to endure torture and pain. It seemed as if he actually enjoyed his experiences in such situations.”

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Ernie O’Malley

When Andrews called in one day, he found the normally unflappable O’Malley almost out of his mind with cabin fever. Desperate to get out of the house, he invited Andrews to join him on a trip for a haircut. Not wanting to be seen as cowardly, Andrews reluctantly agreed.

The pair caught a tram to Westmoreland Street, where there was the best barber in town, at least in O’Malley’s opinion. “While we waited our turn my nerves were stretched to breaking point,” remembered Andrews. To his horror, O’Malley was in no hurry to return to his fishbowl life in Ailesbury Road, indulging in not only a haircut but a singe and a shampoo. Mercifully for Andrews, he did go as far as a face massage but, on the way out, O’Malley paused to purchase two large cigars, one of which he handed to his friend.

“It would be difficult to describe a better method of calling attention to ourselves than by smoking large cigars on a sidewalk in the heart of the city,” Andrews bemoaned. That O’Malley was wearing one of his ostentatious hats – a “large off-white woollen cap” – did nothing to soothe his companion. By the time Andrews got away and returned home, he was in a state akin to shock.hp_22

Thinking back on his time with O’Malley, he considered the other man to be a victim of circumstances, condemned as he was to a tedious desk job:

…dispensing circulars to what at that time were mainly non-existent units of the IRA and when they existed, rarely receiving a reply. He would have achieved true fulfilment in leading a flying column or commando unit.[47]

O’Malley would not have disagreed. He was uncomfortably aware of the incongruity of his situation, partaking in tennis and tea in suburbia, enjoying regular meals, while out in the hills and streets, his brothers-in-arms were struggling merely to survive. It was an all-too-common disparity, O’Malley knew, for many of his fellow officers were content to sit back as bureaucrats when they should have been out in the field, leading by example.[48]

O’Malley would eventually get his chance to do just.

Cornered

It was still dark at half seven in the morning of the 4th November when O’Malley was awoken by a knock on his bedroom door by Sheila to let him know that their house was surrounded.

After assuring her that he was alright, O’Malley remained in his room, placing his revolver on his dressing-table where he had also left a safety razor and a hand-grenade. He dressed in the darkness as quickly he could, pulling his trousers and coat over his pyjamas. Struggling to keep his breathing steady, he heard voices, then footsteps moving upstairs and closer.

There was the distant tapping of rifle-ends against the walls as the enemy searched for concealed rooms, like the one at the end of the corridor where O’Malley was waiting. The door to his bedroom had been changed to a wooden clothespress, which could be swung open by means of a spring connected to a wire to pull. This cunning device had been constructed during the War of Independence by a man who – as O’Malley was uncomfortably aware of – had joined the pro-Treaty side.

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National Army soldiers

A rifle-butt knocked on the other side of the dummy clothespress, emitting a hollow sound that distinctly told of a room beyond. More rifles were struck against the wood, splintering it bit by bit. O’Mally was keenly tempted to fire his revolver through the door before dashing out in a blaze of glory but the fear of hitting any of the Humphrey family stayed his hand.

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Áine O’Rahilly

It was not until the partition finally swung open with a heavy crash that O’Malley gave in, firing twice at the first intruder and being rewarded with a cry of pain. Free Staters scrambled to escape as he emerged from his bolthole, shooting again, this time at a motion behind another door in the corridor, hitting Áine O’Rahilly, the sister of Ellen Humphreys, who was staying with them, in the chin.

Ellen appeared to help her sibling back into her room, gallantly assuring O’Malley not to worry. Thoroughly shaken, O’Malley forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. The sound of breaking windows told of how the enemy outside were firing on the house from all directions.

With the grenade in hand, O’Malley stepped downstairs to where he could hear the babble of voices, pulled the pin out and lobbed it at the Free Staters crowding the hall. The men stampeded for the door until the hall was empty save for the unexploded grenade, its cap belatedly revealed as defective, lying in the centre of the floor.

Last Stand

Making the decision to take the fight outdoors to spare his hosts any further danger, O’Malley left through the back and ran around the house, revolver in hand, opening fire at the first green coats he saw. A bullet struck him in the back, and then another to the shoulder, felling him to the previously manicured, now-torn lawn.

He managed to squeeze off more shots but his benumbed hand was only slowly responding to his mental commands. Again, he was hit from behind, but he struggled to his knees, and then on trembling legs. A fourth bullet found him, once more in the back, and he crumbled against the wall of the house.

O’Malley emerged from a red haze to find himself again inside the house, Ellen having managed to drag him there. Lying on his brutalised back, lacking the strength to turn over, he watched dimly as a circle of uniforms surrounded him.[49]

raid-1922-fragmentAILESBURY ROAD FIGHT read the Irish Times headline, two days later on the 6th November:

One soldier of the national Army was killed, a prominent leader of the Republicans was seriously wounded when national troops sent to search 36 Ailesbury road.

“In many respects the affair was worthy of the cinema,” noted the article. The Republican leader in question had been driven away under heavy escort in a military ambulance, his condition being described as critical. The write-up he received in the newspaper, whose editor he had held off from assassinating, might at least have given him some satisfaction:

Ernest O’Malley was in charge of the Four Courts during the bombardment, and arranged its surrender. He afterwards escaped while in custody in Jameson’s distillery. He has displayed much activity throughout the country.[50]

Despite the severity of his wounds, O’Malley would live, albeit as a prisoner for the duration of the war. His aforementioned activity had come to an end. Lynch took the loss of his right-hand man phlegmatically. As he promoted Moloney to fill O’Malley’s place in the IRA hierarchy, Lynch said that while the arrest was a serious loss, “he could have been taken at a worse time; it has led to no disorganisation.”

Furthermore, the “splendid fight” of O’Malley’s would serve as a stirring example to the others. If nothing else, Lynch could be relied upon to see any glass as half-full.[51]

To be continued in: The Irrelevance of Consideration: Liam Lynch and the Tightening of the Civil War, 1922-3 (Part VI)

References

[1] Irish Times, 03/07/1922

[2] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 162-9

[3] Ibid, pp. 172-6

[4] Ibid, pp. 172-5, 177-9

[5] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 78-80

[6] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame, pp. 180-3

[7] Ibid, pp. 185-6

[8] Ibid, p. 206

[9] Ibid, pp. 183-6, 189

[10] Ibid, p. 186

[11] Ibid, pp. 190-1

[12] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p.75

[13] Ibid, p. 82

[14] Ibid, p. 85

[15] Ibid, pp. 68-9

[16] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 226

[17] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 107-8

[18] Ibid, pp. 134-5

[19] For more information on Count Plunkett’s mission to Rome in 1916, see Irish Press, 26/05/1933

[20] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 87-8

[21] Ibid, p. 99

[22] Ibid, pp. 132-3

[23] Ibid, p. 103

[24] Ibid, p. 105

[25] Ibid, p. 156

[26] Ibid, p. 165

[27] Ibid, p. 178

[28] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 77-8

[29] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), pp. 146-7

[30] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 126

[31] Irish Times, 12/08/1922

[32] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 164

[33] Ibid, p. 160

[34] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War ([London]: Fontana/Collins, 1970), p. 431

[35] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 194

[36] Irish Times, 12/08/1922

[37] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981), pp. 186-7

[38] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 117

[39] Ibid, pp. 215, 245

[40] Ibid, p. 157

[41] Ibid, p. 191

[42] Ibid, p. 187

[43] Ibid, p. 126

[44] Ibid, p. 191

[45] Ibid, p. 187

[46] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame, pp. 208-9

[47] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 272-3

[48] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 208-9

[49] Ibid, pp. 231-9

[50] Irish Times, 06/11/1922

[51] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 333

Bibliography

Books

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

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981)

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

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

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War ([London]: Fontana/Collins, 1970)

Newspapers

Irish Press

Irish Times

Bureau of Military Statements

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

 

The Self-Deceit of Honour: Liam Lynch and the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

A continuation of: The Fog of Certainty: Liam Lynch and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part III)

Limerick Lost

The ten-day battle for Limerick reached its weary climax before midnight on the 19th July 1922 when the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) decided that enough was enough. Following the orders of their Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, the men evacuated their positions under the cover of darkness and left the city in a line of motorcars, passing northwards through the Ballinacurra road, the only route still open to them.

They did not depart quietly.

A rear-guard kept up covering volleys of machine gun and rifle-fire. At 12:30 am, two or three explosions ripped through the gate of the New Barracks, courtesy of a detonated mine. So strong was the blast that stones and debris were hurled into nearby streets, tearing the roofs of houses.

Two hours later, huge columns of smoke were seen billowing out from two separate places, the New and Ordnance Barracks, the flames beneath lighting up the night sky and granting the milling crowds a view of the latest drama in their city as it was played out. Soon, a similar sight could be observed over the Castle Barracks. The Anti-Treatyites had set their posts ablaze before retreating in order to deny the victorious National Army those gains.

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Castle Barracks on fire

All three barracks were left completely gutted by the time dawn broke. The heroic efforts of the fire brigade, aided by the lack of wind, had at least ensured that the fires had not spread to the rest of the city. It had suffered enough as it was. The bullet marks that pitted the fronts of houses, along with the broken glass and brick fragments layering the footpaths, mutely testified to the ferocity of the third siege in Limerick’s eventful history.[1]

As the city coat of arms read: Urbs Antiqua Fuit Studiisque Belli. ‘An ancient city well-versed in war,’ indeed.

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National Peace and Unity

For Lynch, Limerick had been a disappointing experience. Not so much the loss of the city in itself – a guerrilla by nature, Lynch nurtured a distrust for static warfare, preferring instead the fluidity of hit-and-run tactics where there was no defeat too grievous as long as one could retreat and recover for the next round.

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Liam Lynch

No, what aggrieved Lynch was the missed opportunity to resolve the conflict by peaceful means. It was not for want of trying on his part, although negotiation had not been his original intent when coming to Limerick from Cashel on the 30th June, taking with him the soldiers from his Cork Brigades.

The assumption at the time – according to Liam Deasy, Lynch’s right-hand man as the O/C of the First Southern Division – was that taking the city would be a mere formality, a prelude to the continuation of the war, with the Shannon acting as a natural bulwark from which to advance into the rest of the country.

It was thus with some surprise that Lynch entered Limerick to find parts of it still in possession of the Free State. Undeterred, he came from the western end and occupied the New Barracks, with the Strands Barracks, Castle Barracks an Ordnance Barracks likewise coming into the Anti-Treatyites’ control soon afterwards.

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Liam Deasyy

When Deasy arrived shortly afterwards, his Chief of Staff was sure that the opposition, in the form of the East Clare Brigade under General Michael Brennan and those pro-Treaty Limerick IRA units, would be driven out in good time. Deasy could not see how this could be done and returned to his headquarters in Mallow, Co. Cork, with a heavy heart, hoping that Lynch and Brennan would find some way instead to bloodlessly resolve matters.[2]

Not everyone was so downcast. Some urged a strike while the iron was hot. “There is no use in fooling with this question any longer,” Seán Moylan told Deasy impatiently on the 6th July, urging him to dispatch reinforcements from the Kerry and Cork brigade. “Send on the men and let us get on with the war.”[3]

But Lynch resisted the temptation. Together with Donnacha O’Hannigan, the pro-Treaty commander of the East Limerick Brigade, he put his name to a truce on the 4th July. Each side agreed not to attack the other and to keep to their own posts in the city. In addition, it was hoped that this laying aside of hostilities would extend beyond the immediate situation.

“We agree to these conditions in the practical certainty that National peace and unity will eventuate from our efforts,” the agreement read,  “and we guarantee to use every means in our power to get this peace.”

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Florence O’Donoghue

To Florence O’Donoghue – Lynch’s friend and biographer – this desire for a peaceful resolution, no matter how tragically denied in the end, represented what was “in the minds of officers like Lynch and O’Hannigan, old comrades in the fight against the British but now on opposite sides in civil conflict.”[4]

It may have been in the mind of Lynch, but Brennan’s and O’Hannigan’s were on something else entirely. Lynch would have little idea of how badly he was bamboozled by his old comrades.

The Barricade

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Michael Brennan

Brennan had no doubt as to what was at stake. “The whole Civil War really turned on Limerick,” he said years later in an interview. “The Shannon was the barricade and whoever held Limerick held the south and the west.”

Maintaining the city, then, was vital. It was also easier said than done, particularly with the poor quality of troops Brennan and Hannigan had at their disposal, many of whom were raw recruits, with no more than two hundred rifles between them.

Brennan could at least take advantage of his opponents’ negligence. Lynch had overlooked the Athlunkard Bridge, allowing Brennan to secure it instead. After setting up headquarters in Cruises Hotel, Brennan established a line of posts that covered the route to the bridge. Most of the Free Staters stationed at these were unarmed, forcing them to make a display of what few arms they did have, even using lead pipes to fool enemy onlookers into thinking they had Lewis machine-guns.

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Athlunkard Bridge

As if this was not enough, Brennan managed to pull off an especially elaborate hoax. He began transporting more of his men from Ennis, Co. Clare, fifty at a time all armed with rifles. They would step off the train at Long Pavement, just across the river from Limerick, and be marched over the Athlunkard Bridge into the city. The rifles would be taken off the men and driven back by lorry to Long Pavement, where they would be handed to the next batch of fifty arrivals. Brennan managed to pull this ruse several times over a couple of days.

Meanwhile, Brennan was impatiently waiting for the supplies of armaments from Dublin that he had been promised. Looming large in his mind was the fear, as he later recalled, “that Lynch would attack me before they turned up, because we couldn’t last.” The Anti-Treatyites had the numbers and the weapons in their favour, and so it was essential to use the talks with Lynch to keep him from overrunning them.

“We met,” said Brennan, “and we met, altogether about a dozen times. We used to meet in the presbytery of the Augustinian church, and we argued and argued.” Which suited the Free Staters perfectly.

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The Augustinian Church in Limerick

Deception

Brennan was acutely aware of how tenuous his position was. Except for Clare, South Galway and certain parts of Limerick, most of the South and the West were in the hands of the Anti-Treatyites. If they were to take Limerick too, then there would be nothing stopping Lynch from concentrating his forces on Dublin, where the fighting hung in the balance.

At best, this would mean prolonged fighting in the capital, to be followed by the need to conquer Munster and Connaught from scratch. At worst, it would be the defeat and death of the Free State.[5]

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George’s Street, Limerick

The only thing stopping this from unfolding was how completely Lynch had been tricked into thinking he was faced in Limerick with an opponent of equal strength. Until Limerick had been secured, he could not risk exposing his forces to an attack from that direction. At the same time, open conflict was not desirous either. As Lynch explained in a letter to Deasy:

Had we to fight in Limerick, our forces that are in Limerick would not only be held there for at least 10 days, but we wouldn’t be in a position to re-inforce Wexford-New Ross Area nor could we hope to attack Thurles. The most we could do would be to harass Kilkenny.

Instead, the truce between him and O’Hannigan, and the talks with Brennan, allowed Lynch to hold down what he believed were 3,000 of the enemy with a comparatively small force of his own. “I expect we will control from the Shannon to Carlow,” he concluded airily, oblivious to how the Free Staters were performing the exact same delaying action on him.[6]

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National Army soldiers on inspection

Despite the opposition he faced, or believed he did, Lynch displayed nothing but self-confidence during the talks. As Brennan remembered: “His whole case was that we hadn’t the remotest chance of winning now and, as nothing could be gained by further bloodshed, could we not agree to stop it.”

In this, Lynch was being entirely consistent. Before the war, he had tried negotiating with his GHQ counterparts for a peaceful resolution. This was done under the assumption, however, that he would be in a stronger position in the end. Feeling confident that things would not reach the point of civil war, Lynch assumed that all he had to do was keep the Anti-Treatyites intact as a military force so as to influence – or pressure – the Provisional Government into rethinking its commitments to the Treaty.[7]

Such passive-aggressiveness did little to endure him to Brennan, who held little faith in the other man’s altruism. Lynch, he was sure, had not “the slightest intention of ending this ‘fratricidal strife’ except on the basis of imposing his views on his opponents.”[8]

Of course, the same could be said for both sides. The only question was who would succeed in imposing on the other.

A Hail of Lead

Brennan could not bring himself to dislike Lynch, who struck him as “an innocent sort of man, very attractive, of unquestionable courage, the kind of man who gets others to follow him.” Still, while Brennan had never considered Lynch as shrewd, he was surprised at how easy it was to trick him.[9]

When the promised convoy of arms from Dublin reached the National Army in Limerick on the morning of the 11th July, Brennan thought it time to send a polite note to Lynch, cancelling their truce which, in hindsight, never had a chance.[10]

Later that evening, two Pro-Treatyites were waylaid on Nelson Street. One was disarmed of his firearm, with his companion, Private O’Brien shot dead a few minutes afterwards in circumstances that remain unclear. From then on, all pretence at a ceasefire was dropped as soldiers scrambled to secure vantage points about the city, from factories, business establishments private dwellings, public institutions or even church belfries.

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National Army soldiers behind a barricade

For the inhabitants, their city had become a prison as much as a battleground, as the Limerick Chronicle reported:

…at certain points it was not safe for anyone to be out, but during the hail of lead which swept the city at intervals, for ten days and nights there were some more venturesome than others who ran the gauntlet.

The growing number of wounded, most of them civilians, testified to the risks of running said gauntlet. The City Fire Brigade took on the responsibility of ferrying the wounded to hospital, earning praise from the Limerick Chronicle for such valour, as did that from the bread van drivers, whose deliveries in the midst of the warzone helped stave off starvation among the trapped population.[11]

Dreams and Compromises

Dragged out over the course of eight days, the fighting hung in the balance, though Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, was confident enough to report to Ernie O’Malley, Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, on the 18th July that: “Things in Limerick are progressing magnificently, it to an extent makes up for shortcomings in other areas.”[12]

On the following day, the balance shifted. The National Army concentrated an artillery gun on the IRA-held Strand Barracks. By the evening, the gate of the building had been blown in, with two holes bored in front, one large enough to lead a horse through. At 8 pm, the twenty-three defendants surrendered.[13]

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The after effects of artillery fire on Strand Barracks

Come nightfall, and Lynch – who had temporarily moved his headquarters to Clonmel, Co. Tipperary – also decided that the further fighting would be fruitless, and gave the order to withdraw from the city. With Limerick taken, the rest of Munster now lay open to the National Army.

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Dan Breen

Before leaving Clonmel, Lynch had talked with Dan Breen, who had tried persuading him against any further resistance, pointing out that he would have to kill three out of every five people in the country in order to succeed. But Lynch would not hear of it, much to Breen’s exasperation.

“He was an absolute dreamer and an idealist,” Breen said later. “He wasn’t a man for the world. A monastery was his place…Lynch had a very strong Catholic upbringing and he was stuck with it. He didn’t understand compromise.”[14]

Which is not entirely fair. Lynch had tried compromise before, when he had negotiated for what he hoped would be a bloodless outcome in Limerick, for all the good it did him.

At least one of his subordinates, Seán MacSwiney, was relatively sympathetic. To him, the Free Staters had been nothing but opportunistic from the start. “Time was needed by the enemy. To gain time they gave pledge which they broke when it suited their purpose.” In contrast, MacSwiney said, “the honesty of purpose of our leaders and their belief in the honesty of purpose of the enemy” was what lost Limerick.

Others were less merciful in their assessments. Mick Sullivan was “thoroughly disgusted” by the inactivity forced on the men during the negotiations. “I could see our incompetence and limitations for this type of fighting for we had no military men between the whole lot of us.”

Frank Bumstead was even more scathing: “Liam Lynch and his bloody Truce ruined us in the Civil War.”[15]

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Inside the burnt-out shell of New Barracks, Limerick

Pointing Fingers

At least five IRA men had been killed in the course of the eight days in Limerick, along with six Free Staters and eleven luckless civilians. Over eighty were wounded, most of them non-combatants caught in the crossfire.[16]

The relatively low number of causalities, at least among the Anti-Treatyites, helped to vindicate Lynch’s cautious approach. His decision to cut and run had helped maintain the IRA as a coherent whole but it would remain a thorny issue among the Anti-Treatyites. Connie Neenan recalled his disagreement with another IRA officer over the controversy:

Tom Kelleher says our position was a strong one and Limerick was of crucial importance to us. He blames Deasy and Lynch – I am not sure. The Staters there were far better organised and in greater numbers.[17]

Another officer, Con Moloney, laid the onus for the debacle on the sluggards of the Third Southern Division (Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary) who, according to him, had left the roads and railways into the city practically unguarded, with disastrous results. Writing to Ernie O’Malley five days after the evacuation, Moloney told of how, up to then: “The enemy moral was very low; things were going all our own way, until enemy re-enforcements simply poured in” – without so much as some sniping to deter them.[18]

One of the last to withdraw was Connie Neenan. By then, he was so hungry that he resorted to stealing a loaf of bread. “You would think that we had never heard of Napoleon’s dictum – an army marches on its stomach,” he grumbled about the poor logistical skills of his colleagues.[19]

‘The Madness of their Actions’

Blame was one thing the IRA was not in short supply of. As for Lynch, he appeared to be guilty of a certain laxness of his own. One of the reasons he had cited for holding up the National Army in Limerick was that otherwise he would have been unable to reinforce the IRA elsewhere. Yet there is no indication that he made any attempt to do so during the lull-time before the fighting broke out in the Limerick.

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Ernie O’Malley

Nor had he made much effort in keeping his subordinates informed of what was expected of them. The silence was enough to prompt O’Malley to write from across the country, in war-torn Dublin, on the 21st July, asking his Chief of Staff to “give an outline of your Military and National Policy as we are in the dark here in regard to both?”[20]

When Lynch replied four days later, it was in a noticeably tart tone: “You ask for an outline of GHQ National policy. Is it necessary to start that our National policy is to maintain the established Republic?”

As for military policy, Lynch’s strategy would be guerrilla warfare from now on – and why not? It had worked well before when the enemy was the British, except now he predicted that “owing to increased arms and the efficiency of Officers and men, it can be waged more extensively.”

Even the advance of the National Army into East Limerick, with the rest of Munster increasingly exposed, did not trouble him unduly: “The enemy here will fail hopelessly in open country unless he advances in massed formation and that would be too costly.”[21]

His enthusiasm remained unabated into August. As Lynch inspected the munitions available, which included a trench mortar, he felt moved to write in another dispatch to O’Malley: “Feel confident of victory. When will the enemy see the madness of their actions?”[22]

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IRA men with rifles

Landing at Passage

It was a slightly more subdued Lynch who later wrote to O’Malley, outlining the recent, unexpected turn of events. It seems that someone in the Free State had reached the same conclusion as Lynch in that pressing on into open country would risk too high a butcher’s bill. They had instead opted for an alternative approach, one that none among the Anti-Treatyites had anticipated:

On the night of the 7th [August] the enemy landed at Passage (about 8 miles from Cork City), but are still pinned there and have made scarcely any progress towards Cork City. On the same night they also landed in Youghal, Union Hall and Glandore, but they do not appear to have made any attempt to advance from these points so far. Bodies of our troops have been rushed to these places to delay and contest their advances.[23]

The IRA outpost at Passage had issued some warning shots at the Arvonia as the steamer cruised towards them in the dark early hours of the 8th. When no one returned fire, the outpost men assumed it was in fact a friendly vessel. They were about to apologise at the gangway, as the Arvonia prepared for disembarkation, only to be overwhelmed by the National Army soldiers who had been biding their time on board.

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National Army soldiers, armed and waiting

Those Anti-Treatyites not captured in the surprise attack hurriedly withdrew, abandoning a number of valuable rifles and revolvers in their haste. Along with their quick victory, the soldiers also enjoyed a warm Corkonian welcome:

At ten o’clock on the morning of the landing there were many volunteers at the ship’s side, some of whom, hearing of the coup, had travelled from Queenstown in order to join up. In catering for the wants of the troops, the people here did all that they could, and the nuns in the convent joined with the other helpers.

Buoyed by their success, the Free Staters struck out that same day towards Cork City, reaching as far as Rochestown without meeting resistance. That changed later in the evening as the men came under heavy fire, with eight of them killed.

Undeterred, the National Army pushed on and managed to reach the village of Douglas two days later. At this point, the Anti-Treatyites largely withdrew to nearby Cork City, where “from the display of force and the preparations made by the irregulars, it was believed that a determined effort would be made to hold the city,” according to the Irish Times.

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National Army soldiers

‘The Vanished Mail Fist’

As it turned out, the National Army, not to mention the city inhabitants, need not have worried unduly. After all the effort the Free Staters had spent in getting there, the resultant battle for Cork lasted no more than forty minutes.

Commandant-General Tom Ennis entered the city in his armoured, having first lobbed a couple of shrapnel shells to disperse some lingering Anti-Treatyites at Douglas. Shots were exchanged in some of the main streets but most of the violence was directed against certain buildings as the IRA hastened to leave as little of value behind.

lcab_02604_parnell_bridge_corkAn attempt was made to blow up Parnell Bridge, with the explosion being heard for miles around, but the structure remained intact, allowing Ennis and his detachment, in what the Irish Times compared to a Roman triumph, an unimpeded passage through the city – unimpeded that is, save for the enthusiastic greetings they received en route:

Every window had its occupant waving a cordial welcome. Men cheered loudly in the streets, and when crossing Parnell Bridge the troops had to march in single file before taking up temporary headquarters at the Corn market…During their progress through the city, the troops received many a hearty hand-shake, and women embraced some of them in their joy.

The Corn market would have to suffice, for the military barracks had been left a smouldering ruin, the fires having been started on the 8th, almost as soon as news had come of the Passage landings, suggesting that evacuation had always been part of the Anti-Treatyites’ plan. Other barracks about the city had also been put to the torch, the hoses of the fire brigade having been sabotaged beforehand to prevent their rescue:

Dense clouds of smoke rose skywards as these buildings were being consumed, and the noise of frequent explosions gave the impression that there was heavy fighting, and it caused alarm.

Also suffering rough treatment were the plant and machinery of the Cork Examiner, the anti-Treaty mouthpiece, albeit a conscripted one. An IRA work-team had wrecked the equipment with sledgehammers on the 8th August, so as to stifle knowledge of their defeat for as long as possible.

For the next three days, the newspaper was out of commission until it reappeared on the shop shelves on the 12th, bloodied but unbroken, much like Cork itself. “Smaller than usual, it is true,” said the Irish Times of its fellow broadsheet, “but containing a full week of the past week’s events.”[24]

cork-examiner-july-1916The first thing the Cork Examiner did upon its return to print was sing the praises of the Free State military:

Never, probably, in the history of the world, has a newly born army – hardly yet out of its swaddling clothes – achieved in such a short space of time, a series of sweeping victories, comparable to those won up to date by Ireland’s National troops.

Hyperbole, perhaps, but then the newspaper had much to celebrate. Liberated at last, no longer would it be forced to run propaganda at the behest of the IRA, characterised in a headline of the Examiner’s as ‘The Vanished Mailed Fist’.[25]

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Two Free State officers disembarking off the Arvonia at Cork

Flight to Macroom

‘Vanquished’ would also have been an apt term.

The future writer, Frank O’Connor, had been in Cork when news of the incoming Free Staters reached his ears. Seeing the state of his IRA comrades, the 18-year old youth knew it was pointless looking to them for direction: “There was a crowd of bewildered men in the roadway and a senior officer was waving his arms and shouting: ‘Every man for himself.’”

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Frank O’Connor

Feeling bereft of any other options, O’Connor escaped Cork by foot while an exodus of cars, trucks and lorries tore past him on the road. O’Connor was able to hitch a ride on one of them to Macroom, where the rest of the anti-Treaty soldiers were regrouping. O’Connor and a friend managed to find a hotel-room but even that was no respite from the bedlam of the day: “In the middle of the night some noisy men, pleading fatigue, began to hammer on our doors and demand our beds.”[26]

Another writer-to-be, Seán O’Faolain, had a similar experience. He reached Macroom Castle in one of the retreating vehicles and listened throughout the night as the rest of the convoy poured in. “When we rose the next morning we surveyed the image of a rout,” with men sleeping where they had stopped, whether on the grass, in their motor cars or lying under trucks. It was “a sad litter of exhausted men,” leaving O’Faolain “under no illusions as to our ‘army’s’ capacity to form another line of battle.”[27]

When the decision was announced for the men to scatter and prepare for a return to guerrilla tactics, many were furious, having come all the way to Macroom, only to face a daunting and lengthy walk back home.[28]

For some, enough was enough. “After that the retreat into the countryside meant that our columns just melted away,” Connie Neenan remembered. “There were no longer houses open to them.”[29]

By the time the Free Staters reached Macroom, they found the castle, along with the police barracks and courthouse, had been set ablaze. Before, it had appeared that Macroom might be spared the rough treatment of the other towns and cities the IRA had discarded, with the Cork Examiner reporting on the rumours that the anti-Treaty forces there had “differed on the policy of destruction. The local commandant held out against the destruction of the castle in their possession, and it is stated the building was saved.”[30]

But, as it turned out, the IRA had not wavered on at least one thing.

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A restored Macroom Castle today

Road Trip

By mid-August, Munster was seen as sufficiently subdued – ‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word – for the Irish Times to dispatch a special correspondent for a tour.

Appropriately, he began in Free State-held Limerick, the first site that the Anti-Treatyites had withdrawn from in force. What initially struck him was how rapidly the National Army had been allowed to advance. He could only wonder at the absence of the forces who had previously held the area:

Of the thousands of irregulars who occupied Cork City a month ago, there is no trace. What, then, can be the explanation? Is it possible that the irregulars may concentrate in West Cork for a last stand – possible, not probable.

More and more, events lead to the conclusion that their retreat means a determination not merely to fight another day, but also another way…they mean to desert regular hostilities for a kind of guerrilla warfare and private vendetta.[31]

The only trouble the pressman had encountered since setting out from Limerick were two trenches dug across the road – one of which, true to Murphy’s Law, he had driven into – and one dismantled bridge.

To the credit of the IRA commanders, the journalist wrote, they had put an end to the wanton looting by their soldiers upon pain of death. The ‘scorched earth’ policy against official or strategic targets remained, however, and he passed the charred husks of barracks, courthouses and workhouses on his way from Limerick to Co. Cork.[32]

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Inside the Four Courts, Dublin, after the fighting

One such site had received particular attention: “I learn from a reliable source that the destruction of the great military barracks at Fermoy was carried out with great fury. The extensive blocks of buildings were bombed until they were burning fiercely.”

With Fermoy, the Anti-Treatyites had discarded their last base. The guerrilla phase the pressman had speculated about would now come fully into play. Lynch might have disputed the use of the term ‘private vendetta’ – for him, the Republic was at stake, not some personal agenda – but it was true that he had no inclinations towards any suicidal last stands.

The Irish Times correspondent entered Cork City on the 18th August, in time to attest to the commencement of the irregular warfare he had predicted. A squad of Free State soldiers on MacCurtain Street came under fire from snipers hidden beneath the branches of trees on the top of Summerhill, overlooking the city from the north. By the time the soldiers had reached the hill in response, their assailants were nowhere to be found.[33]

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National Army soldiers, with one receiving medical treatment

Trustworthy Quarters

The destruction of several railway bridges outside Cork and the damage to the main roads meant that, if not for its harbour, the city would be entirely isolated. Still, the special correspondent noticed that signs of life were beginning to reappear, with business gradually improving and public confidence on the rise.

That there was a war still on was increasingly seen as just another fact of life: “At night there is frequent sniping and occasional ambushing, but no serious causalities have so far been reported.”

Elsewhere in the county, the National Army continued taking territory apace, sometimes unhindered, sometimes not. Bandon was captured after a token resistance from the Anti-Treatyites, who snapped off a few shots before retreating into the countryside.

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IRA combatants, some being noticeably youthful

Bantry had seen no opposition until the morning of the 19th August, when rifles and machine-guns opened fire from the belts of trees on the high ground overlooking the town. Their targets were the houses, especially those in the central streets, where the Free State soldiers were billeted. Despite the intensity of the shooting, soldiers and civilians alike avoided injury, narrowly in many cases, and the former were able to return fire and beat off the assailants.

The National Army was not so fortunate at Ballinamor. On the 18th August, troops on their way to Clonakilty were ambushed, with one of them killed and another wounded. After the IRA was driven away, the advance continued, only to run into a second ambush, albeit one with no further causalities.

Matters were unsettled enough to warrant the personal attention of Michael Collins. The Commander-in-Chief arrived in Cork on the 20th. He had meant to come earlier but the sudden death of Arthur Griffith had cut short his tour of the South-Western Command. Now Collins had the chance to confer with his officers on the local situation, after which he declared his satisfaction at the rapid gains and consolidation they had made so far.

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Emmet Dalton (left) with Michael Collins (right)

This was apparently not the only topic under discussion, though the Irish Times correspondent was sceptical: “Rumours concerning peace overtures are still afloat, but they are discounted in trustworthy quarters.”[34]

In reality, such talk was more than just hearsay. Peace feelers had indeed been surreptitiously put out, possibly with Collins’ approval, by Major-General Emmet Dalton who held the command in Cork. But Dalton’s terms were little more than a demand for unconditional surrender, which was the last thing on the Anti-Treatyites’ minds, and so nothing came of such a misconceived overture.[35]

At least Collins got to enjoy himself in his home county. Wherever he went, he was the centre of attention from enthusiastic crowds, and nowhere was he admired more than in Cork.[36]

He had had a narrow escape some days before when, on the 19th August, his motorcar collided with a lorry from his own army while driving through Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), Co. Dublin. His car was badly damaged but Collins emerged unscathed, much to the cheers of onlookers as they recognised their hero. Another car was procured and all was fine again.[37]

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Michael Collins on his way to Béal na Bláth

‘A Splendid Achievement’

On the 30th August 1922, Lynch wrote to O’Malley about his thoughts on the recent ambush at Béal na Bláth eight days earlier, in which Collins had been shot dead. Lynch regretted its necessity – particularly since Collins had had “such a splendid previous record” from the recent war against Britain – while hoping that the Free Staters would finally recognise the “impossibility and hopelessness” of their situation and concede defeat.

After all, Lynch was sure that the opposition had been dealt a crippling blow:

Collins’ death will probably alter their outlook and effect his higher Military Command. Collins’ loss is one which they cannot fill. The enemy position from the point of view of military and political leadership is very bad – we are at present in a much better position if we continue to take advantage of it.

From a professional perspective, Lynch could not help but critique the ambush. While it was a “splendid achievement from a military point of view”, he observed, had the ambushers not removed their landmine from the road beforehand, they might have inflicted more damage.[38]

On a more personal note, Lynch sent off a second letter to O’Malley that day, offering his condolences for the latter’s brother who had been killed as part of the fighting in Dublin. It was indeed a sad state of affairs but Lynch was confident that his sacrifice and those of others would not be in vain. The Republic would emerge victorious and that would be the end of this “un-natural war which is causing so much sorrow and misery to all Irishmen.”

But first, the war would have to be won, a task in which Lynch did not anticipate too much further trouble.[39]

To be continued in: The Treachery of Peace: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley and the Politics of the Civil War, 1922 (Part V)

References

[1] Limerick Chronicle, 25/07/1922

[2] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 54, 58-9, 64-5

[3] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 149

[4] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), pp. 262-3

[5] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War ([London]: Fontana/Collins, 1970), pp. 370-2

[6] Hopkinson, p. 148

[7] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 119-120

[8] Younger, p. 374

[9] Ibid, pp. 374-5

[10] Ibid, p. 377

[11] Limerick Chronicle, 22/07/1922

[12] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 56

[13] Limerick Chronicle, 22/07/1922

[14] Younger, p. 378

[15] Hopkinson, p. 149

[16] Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig. The Battle for Limerick City (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 136

[17] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 245

[18] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 70

[19] MacEoin, p. 245

[20] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 62

[21] Ibid, p. 68

[22] Ibid, p. 88

[23] Ibid, p. 91

[24] Irish Times, 15/08/1922

[25] Cork Examiner, 14/08/1922

[26] O’Connor, Frank. An Only Child (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), pp. 227-9

[27] O’Faolain, Seán. Viva Moi! (London: Stevenson-Sinclair, 1993), p. 154

[28] O’Connor, p. 229

[29] MacEoin, p. 246

[30] Cork Examiner, 14/08/1922 and 19/08/1922

[31] Irish Times, 16/08/1922

[32] Ibid, 19/08/1922

[33] Ibid, 18/08/1922

[34] Ibid, 23/08/1922

[35] Deasy, p. 82

[36] Irish Times, 23/08/1922

[37] Ibid, 21/08/1922

[38] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 134-5

[39] Ibid, p. 136

Bibliography

Books

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

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

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

O’Connor, Frank. An Only Child (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997)

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

O’Faolain, Seán. Vive Moi! (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993)

Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig. The Battle for Limerick City (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Mercier Press, 2010)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War ([London]: Fontana/Collins, 1970)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Irish Times

Limerick Chronicle

 

The Limits of Might: Liam Lynch and the End/Start of Conflict, 1921-2 (Part I)

A Pause in the War

Deasy
Liam Deasy

When peace came to Ireland on the 11th July 1921, it was sudden, unexpected and, for some in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), not entirely welcome.

Two days earlier, Liam Deasy, the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, had been in Togher, a parish south of Cork City, overseeing a staff meeting of the Dunmanway Battalion, one of the six that made up that IRA Brigade. Deasy was in the process of drawing up plans with the Dunmanway men when the schoolteacher, whose house they were using, rushed in with a copy of that morning’s edition of the Cork Examiner.

A Truce between the IRA and the Crown forces was announced, due to come into effect in a couple of days’ time. The news was received in stunned silence, each man struggling to take in the enormity of what he had heard. “No trace of emotion, not the slightest sign of enthusiasm, betrayed themselves in the reaction of my colleagues,” was how Deasy remembered the scene.

Attempting to sort out his feelings, Deasy believed he would have opposed such a détente – had it been up to him – unless a satisfactory outcome was guaranteed. Since he was under no illusion as to how much the British Government would be prepared to concede, the ceasefire could be no more than temporary, useful only as breathing space before the next step on the journey towards complete independence and the Irish Republic.

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British soldiers in Dublin during the War of Independence

Still, Deasy was human enough to feel relief at the break in almost two years of life ‘on the run’ and the chance to move around freely without fear of arrest or death. But he was also concerned that such respite might prove problematic in terms of discipline. The same men who had stoically endured hardship and danger might not be so eager for more once the Truce ended and the war resumed.

Such were the thoughts and concerns swirling around Deasy’s head as he left Togher and travelled in a pony and trap towards Ballylickey, where he had made his latest Brigade headquarters. Accompanying him was Tom Barry, the famed flying column commander. When the two men reached Ballylickey, they found a dispatch waiting for them.

It was from Liam Lynch, the O/C of the First Southern Division and their superior officer. Both men were ordered to proceed to the Division Headquarters at the village of Glantane, to begin their new assignments, with Barry as the liaison officer with the British Army and Deasy to assist Lynch on the newly expanded Division staff. These instructions snapped the pair out of the fog of surprise, reminding them that their duty had not yet come to an end.[1]

Preparing for the Next Round

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Lynch often had this effect on people. “I was very impressed with Lynch,” recalled one contemporary. “He was always so meticulous about his appearance and dress… At the same time, he was a strong disciplinarian.”[2]

Nothing exemplified this exacting attitude better than the days immediately following the Truce. Lynch allowed himself or his men no relaxation, estimating that he had at best three or four weeks, possibly six, within which to do six months’ worth of work.

When a house in Glantane became vacant, the First Southern Division HQ quickly moved in. Besides mealtimes, the only pauses in the workload came on Sunday evenings when Lynch would suggest a walk in the countryside. Anything more was out of the question. It would amount, as he wrote to his brother Tom, to a “National sin when there is work to be done” – and there was much to do.[3]

A rare break, however unwillingly, came when he was arrested by a British patrol on the 18th August. A quick call to Dublin Castle was enough to secure his release and the continuation of the Truce. In the meantime, he had enjoyed chatting with the Black-and-Tans, jovially discussing with his captors the possibility of reacquainting with them on the battlefield.[4]

Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.

General Direction

As for the talks between President Éamon de Valera and the British Prime Minister, and the subsequent negotiations in London by the Irish Plenipotentiaries, Lynch and his staff had nothing more than a passing interest.

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Cathal Brugha

Even the offer of a promotion from Dublin only served to irritate Lynch. On the 6th December, Lynch wrote to Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defence, to turn down the offer of commander-in-chief. The reason given – “after serious consideration,” Lynch stressed – was such an elevation would put him too much under the thumb of the Cabinet, to the detriment, Lynch feared, of effective military work: “I feel that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff cannot do their duty when they are not placed in a position to do so.”

The current frustration was a case in point. “At the present moment when war may be resumed at short notice I have got no general direction,” Lynch complained to Brugha. Lynch was not to be led astray from his priorities.[5]

That same day, Lynch was to receive news of another unwelcome distraction from the war with Britain: the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Plenipotentiaries. It did not take long for the First Southern Division to decide about it. At a meeting in Cork on the 10th December, four days after the signing, the Division staff unanimously adopted a resolution:

The Treaty as it is drafted is not acceptable to us as representing the Army in the 1st Divisional Area, and we urge its rejection by the Government.[6]

The resolution was sent to Richard Mulcahy as the IRA Chief of Staff, with instructions for it to be forwarded to the Cabinet. Lynch signed it as ‘Liam Ó Loingisg’, along with the members of his staff (including Deasy) and, in an impressive display of solidarity, all the Officers Commanding (O/Cs) of the Division brigades – the five from Cork, the three from Kerry and the sole ones from West Limerick and Waterford.

According to Deasy, this resolution was a step not taken lightly, given the implied criticism of Michael Collins – one of the signatories of the Treaty – who Lynch and his Divisional colleagues otherwise held in high regard.[7]

The Brotherhood

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Michael Collins

Nonetheless, Lynch could not have been completely surprised. Collins had warned him to that effect a month earlier in November 1921. In a session of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Parnell Place, Cork, Collins had taken Lynch and his closest aides, Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, aside for a private chat.

Given the impossibility for either military or diplomatic actions to achieve complete independence for Ireland, Collins told them, compromises would inevitably have to be made. Perturbed, Lynch asked Collins not to repeat such a thing in front of the others, lest things ‘blow up’ there.[8]

In Dublin, a month later, on the 10th December, Lynch attended a conclave of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s ruling body. Two days afterwards, the Council issued a note to its adherents. For such a momentous decision, the instructions were surprisingly terse, saying only that the Supreme Council had decided that the Treaty should be ratified. However, those of the IRB who were also public representatives could act as they saw fit. That was all, for now.[9]

For Lynch, this decision was a profoundly disappointing one. It had also alienated him from the rest of the Supreme Council. As he recounted in a letter to O’Donoghue on the 11th December: “The situation is I stood alone at the meeting I attended.”

As far as Lynch knew, the First Southern Division might also standing apart from the rest of the IRA. Nonetheless, the “position I have taken up I mean to stand by.”

“Too Much Gas”

Florence
Florence O’Donoghue

Despite his bullish words, Lynch attempted to strike a pensive chord to O’Donoghue: “I do not recommend immediate war as our front is broken.”

Lynch suspected that the Treaty would be carried by a majority in the Dáil, in which case the minority would fall in line, a principle that must also apply within the Army “or we are lost.” For all his determination on behalf of the Irish Republic, it was the IRA and the threat to its cherished unity that was his immediate concern.

In regards to Collins: “I admire Mick as a soldier and a man. Thank God all parties can agree to differ.”[10]

Lynch repeated his conciliatory tone towards Collins in a letter to his brother Tom, written on the 12th: “Sorry I must agree to differ with Collins, that does not make us worse friends.” Should the war with Britain be resumed, Lynch had no doubt that Collins would continue to do his part for Irish freedom.

Not that friendship lessened Lynch’s convictions one bit: “First of all I must assure you that my attitude is now as always, to fight on for the recognition of the Republic,” even if that meant fighting on by himself. Should the Government accept the Treaty, as it seemed likely, then he would bide his time until they could “strike for final victory at most favourable opportunity.”

Lynch was looking forward to the time when ‘war-war’ could take over from ‘jaw-jaw’: “Speeches and fine talk do not go far these days,” he grumbled. “We have already too much gas.”[11]

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Anti-Treaty cartoon, depicting Michael Collins

“My God, It’s Terrible”

The Dáil debates over the Treaty began in Dublin on the 14th December 1921. Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue received invitations to attend and did so, even though none were Teachtaí Dála (TDs) and thus in no position to speak. Lynch might have been had he stood in the general election of the previous year, as requested by the East Cork Sinn Féin.

However, when no word of acceptance from Lynch was received, another man, Séamus Fitzgerald, was selected (and elected) instead. When Fitzgerald chanced upon Lynch during the Dáil debates, the latter said that he had never received the offer, but reassured Fitzgerald that he was quite happy that he had been the one elected.[12]

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National Concert Hall, Dublin, the site of the Dáil debates when it was the National University

Lynch was probably sincere in this, considering how little he thought of ‘speeches and fine talk’. The unedifying spectacle of “men who a few short months before were fighting as comrades side by side, now indulging in bitter recrimination, rancour, invective charges and counter charges” – as Deasy put it – was unlikely to have made him regret his missed opportunity in politics.[13]

(They were not the only ones so disgusted. Todd Andrews, who would later be Lynch’s aide-de-camp, found the debates so dispiriting that he walked away, convinced that only the Army could salvage anything out of the mess that politics had made.[14])

Dáil debate on the Treaty, 1921-22
Crowds outside the National University as the Dáil debated inside

At least Lynch had the opportunity while in Dublin to meet up with like-minded IRA officers. The house at 71 Heytesbury Street had long been used as a refuge for Volunteers on the run. Lynch had been nursed there through two illnesses. It was only fitting, then, for it to be the place of a reunion between him and Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows, all of whom, like Lynch, held senior positions in the IRA.

Lynch, O’Malley noted, “was square and determined looking. He tightened his pince-nez glasses and he muttered: ‘My God, it’s terrible, terrible.’”

Lynch was the first to break the sombre silence in the room. “I wish we knew what the other divisional officers thought and felt. That would make things easier.”

“Have you seen Collins?” asked O’Connor. “He was looking for you.”

“Yes, I have,” replied Lynch. “I met him and Eoin O’Duffy. They said the Treaty would give breathing space, allow the army to arm and equip, then we could declare war whenever a suitable opportunity came.”

“They mean to enforce the Treaty,” said a more sceptical O’Connor, “but we must organise.”

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Liam Mellows

The chief problem, O’Malley said, was knowing who to trust. O’Connor was in favour of breaking away from the IRA GHQ control as soon as the Dáil debates were over. Nothing good could come from them or GHQ anymore. For now, they could rely only on each other. Robinson and O’Malley agreed. Mellows, in contrast, was content to wait, confident that, in any case, the IRA would never accept the Treaty, and that would be the end of the matter.

Short of a definite plan of action, the men could do little but agree to keep in touch before departing for the night.[15]

Lynch kept to this wait-and-see attitude when he later met with Dan Breen, who urged for them to forget the Truce and resume the war with Britain at once. Seeing Lynch’s lack of enthusiasm, Breen left in a huff.[16]

A Chance

O’Malley had first met Lynch in September 1920 while visiting Co. Cork as part of his travels as a GHQ organiser. Then the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, Lynch had impressed him as quiet but commanding, with O’Malley accompanying him in the capture of Mallow Barracks.[17]

But the two men never grew close, their relationship remaining a coolly professional one. This lack of shared sympathy would bedevil the Anti-Treatyites, hamstringing their attempts to coordinate effectively.

The mood amongst the anti-Treaty IRA had gone from bad to worse by the time Mulcahy summoned them for a sit-down in Banba Hall, Parnell Square, in January 1922. O’Malley was so suspicious that he went in with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat in case of arrest. Inside, the attendees sat in a semi-circle, the Anti-Treatyites to the right, their pro-Treaty counterparts on the left. Such self-segregation from the start did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

banba-hallWhen Mulcahy began by saying that the Free State intended to keep the name of the Republican Army, O’Connor cuttingly replied that a name did not make it so. Jim O’Donovan proceeded to call Collins a traitor. Collins leapt to his feet in fury amidst cries of ‘withdraw’ and ‘apologise’.

After Mulcahy restored some semblance of peace, he made a conciliatory suggestion: the Anti-Treatyites present could nominate two of their own to attend future GHQ meetings. When they withdrew to another room to talk this over, Lynch said he was in agreement. The others were not, preferring to make a clean break by setting up a command of their own, GHQ be damned, just as O’Connor had first suggested in Heytesbury Street.

Lynch stood his ground and threatened to go his own way. As the First Southern Division had the most manpower, controlled the most territory and was among the best armed, the other leaders had no choice but to back down. They had been cowed at the first challenge and by one of their own, something which none of them had anticipated.

Stalemated, the other Anti-Treatyites grudgingly agreed to give Mulcahy’s olive-branch a try. When they returned to a waiting Mulcahy to announce their decision, he was magnanimous enough to promise a convention for the IRA in two months’ time, where things could hopefully be straightened out for good.[18]

Limerick Takeover

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

As per Mulcahy’s proposal, O’Malley was selected as one of the Anti-Treatyites’ representatives. But O’Malley had little desire to be sitting in on meetings at GHQ, a body he had come to dismiss as an irrelevance at best, a hindrance at worst. Many of his peers were inclined to agree, prompting Lynch to do his utmost to prevent the widening gap between the anti and pro-Treaty factions from splitting into open warfare.

The first thing O’Malley did after his departure from Dublin was to call a meeting of the Second Southern Division. As their O/C, he placed the question of continued GHQ control to his brigades, of which one (East Limerick) was prepared to remain loyal, with the other four (Mid-Limerick, Kilkenny, Mid-Tipperary and South Tipperary) agreeing that the situation had become intolerable.[19]

Secure in the backing of most of his Division, O’Malley henceforth ignored all calls to bring him back to Dublin, including the summons to his own court-martial when GHQ finally realised his desertion. To make the estrangement official, the Mid-Limerick Brigade issued a proclamation, headed ‘Republican of Ireland’, on the 18th February, which explained that since the majority of GHQ were attempting to subvert the Republic, the Brigade could no longer recognise its authority.[20]

The dissenters were prepared to match their words with action. On the 7th March, the Limerick Chronicle informed its readers that “events in Limerick during the past couple of days have been rather significant, and in the minds of the citizens have created a certain amount of tension.”

Not that the citizens in question needed a newspaper to inform them of this. Two days before, IRA units from the GHQ-defying brigades entered the city and occupied a number of hotels as well as the disused wing of the District Mental Hospital – O’Malley, for one, appreciated the irony of that choice, given the state of the times.[21]

King John’s Castle remained in pro-Treaty hands. O’Malley had planned to take the medieval fortification in a surprise night-raid with the connivance of a sympathetic member of the garrison who was to open the gates to them at 11:30 pm. By 1 am, the inside man had yet to appear and O’Malley, fed up with waiting in the cold rain, allowed his sodden men to retire.[22]

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King John’s Castle, Limerick

Limerick Standoff

At least the Anti-Treatyites had the comforts of bed and board that their hotel strongpoints provided. A second proclamation was sent to the Limerick Chronicle on the 9th March, explaining further the reasons for the occupation.

Mulcahy was blamed for refusing to allow them to occupy the barracks recently vacated by the Crown forces, sending instead officers chosen on account of their loyalty to GHQ rather than to the Republic: “He seeks to ensure that no matter how the coming IRA Convention decides, the Provisional Government will hold all areas for the Free State Party.”

To prevent such opportunism, the Anti-Treatyites of Limerick had brought in their comrades from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Kerry, Waterford and Galway. The city had rapidly become a microcosm of the Treaty divide.[23]

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IRA men on top of an armoured car in Limerick in the wake of the British withdrawal

O’Malley felt Limerick was secure enough to briefly visit Dublin to meet Rory O’Connor – not, significantly, Lynch – and apprise him of the situation. O’Connor was encouraging but otherwise refused to commit himself, preferring instead, to O’Malley’s annoyance, to watch how things unfolded.

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Eoin O’Duffy

Meanwhile, Mulcahy and O’Duffy had travelled to Limerick on a mission of their own. The former had by then been promoted to Minister of Defence, with the latter stepping in his shoes as Chief of Staff. That two such senior figures had been sent showed how seriously the Provisional Government was taking the matter. Invites for anti-Treaty officers to meet with Mulcahy and O’Duffy in the Castle were declined, and the two GHQ men returned to Dublin with things as frayed as before.[24]

Within the Provisional Government, President Arthur Griffith was advocating a firm line, having come to believe that war was inevitable. In the only formal speech to the Cabinet that one witness, Ernest Blythe, remembered him making, Griffith argued that as they were now a government, with all the accompanying responsibilities, they had a duty to assert their authority.

Limerick Compromise

Collins, on whom the final decision rested (Blythe had no doubt about that), looked inclined to agree. Mulcahy then intervened, as Blythe recalled:

Mulcahy apparently had a great belief in Liam Lynch and a great confidence that he understood him and could rely on him, and he put forward the proposal of handing over the Limerick barracks to Liam Lynch, who would hold them at the disposal of the Government, subject to certain considerations.[25]

Relieved at finding a way to avoid conflict with his old comrades, Collins accepted the suggestion, much to Griffith’s annoyance.

On the 11th March, the citizens of Limerick learned “with intense relief”, in the words of the Limerick Chronicle, that a settlement had been reached. Although the newspaper did not know it, Lynch had taken the step of visiting the city to meet with officers of either faction, together and individually.

O’Malley gave no details in his memoirs, but whatever Lynch said was sufficient. Both sides pulled back from the brink and agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the city. The military barracks was to be in the hands of Pro-Treatyites until the building was entrusted to those local IRA units who had remained neutral during the manoeuvrings of the week before. Ironically, the last pro-Treaty men to leave the city were of the East Limerick Brigade, the only one in O’Malley’s Division to stay with the GHQ.[26]

The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.

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Anti-Treaty IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick

Press Relations

A month later, Lynch felt enough had been said about the Limerick flashpoint for him to set the record straight in a letter to the newspapers on the 27th April: “I have always avoided publicity, but my name has been brought forward so much recently that I am reluctantly forced to deal with the matter.”

For all the stated disdain for attention, Lynch was determined that he receive his due credit. It was less for his own sake and more to deny unearned plaudits claimed by others:

Regarding the statement by Beggar Bush’s Headquarters [GHQ] to the effect that they had done everything for unity in the Army, and that the other side had done everything possible to break it, I am sure all officers of high command in the Free State forces can verify my emphatic assertion that no officer did more than myself to maintain a united Army.

“It was a happy consummation for me to see about 700 armed troops on either side who were about to engage in mortal combat, eventually leave Limerick as comrades,” Lynch continued.

‘Comrades’ may have been an overstatement – O’Malley, for one, had threatened to arrest the dawdling officer in charge of the East Limerick men if they did not hurry up and go. But, as the Anti-Treatyites had been planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the Castle as a prelude to storming inside, ‘mortal combat’ had indeed been avoided.

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Arthur Griffith

Lynch had choice things to say about Griffith, who he accused of trying “hard to press the issue in a manner which would have resulted in fearful slaughter.” Considering Griffith’s hard-line stance to the Cabinet, this was not an unreasonable allegation to make.

But it was the “Junior officers of the old G.H.Q. staff” who Lynch laid the blame for the Limerick standoff as well as the present lamentable conditions. For when Lynch was writing, the IRA Convention for March had been banned by Mulcahy on the orders of Griffith, forcing the previously reserved Lynch to decide exactly where he stood.[27]

A New Leadership

O’Malley did not consider the proscription of the IRA Convention to mean much to him. The Second Southern Division, after all, already outside of anyone else’s interference as far as he was concerned.

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Joe McKelvey

When O’Connor called him to his office in Dublin in an urgent dispatch, O’Malley accepted. There, he found Lynch and Deasy, along with some others, including Oscar Traynor and Joe McKelvey, the latter being the O/C of the Third Northern Division (covering Belfast, Antrim and Down) which had added its strength to Lynch and O’Malley’s two Southern ones.

Having previously played peacemaker, Lynch now threw caution to the winds. He suggested they hold the Convention anyway, regardless of what GHQ or the Provisional Government ordered. All the other IRA commands would be notified, whether they were friendly or not, so they could have at least the option of attending.

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Michael Kilroy

All agreed. Michael Kilroy, O/C of the Mayo Brigade, suggested that they elect a Chief of Staff, at least in the interim before the Convention. Lynch was selected, with O’Connor as Director of Engineering, Mellows as Quartermaster-General, Jim O’Donovan (he who had called Collins a traitor), as Director of Chemicals, Seán Russell as Director of Munitions, and O’Malley as Director of Organisation. If GHQ refused to uphold the Republic anymore, then they would create a counter-General Headquarters that would.

Lynch next informed the rest that they would now have to remain in Dublin. As Traynor was O/C of the Dublin Brigade, Lynch tasked him with providing headquarters for them in his city. Traynor suggested the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square. The opposition to the Treaty now had a leadership.[28]

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Parnell Square, Dublin (present day)

The Rule of .45

The Convention went ahead as originally intended on the 26th March in the Mansion House. Annie Farrington, the proprietress of Barry’s Hotel where many of the delegates stayed, remembered the “terrific excitement. There was great diversity of views and they were arguing it out.” Thankfully, none of these arguments ever came to blows.

Lynch was among the visitors. The others warned Farrington “not to say anything flippant before him, as he was very religious.” The respect they held for him was obvious: “They looked upon him as a saint.”[29]

Outside the Mansion House, an armoured car had been parked, its squat bulk contrasting against the cheery front of the building with scarlet geraniums in boxes set by tall lampposts and the freshly painted coat of arms above the main door. Inside was similarly contradictory, the beautiful rooms with their elegant furniture, crystal chandelier and oil-paintings of former Lord Lieutenants at odds with the grim, agitated mood of the delegates.

When one objected to the lack of rules concerning a particular suggestion, another man replied tersely: “We have the rule of .45,” meaning the .45 calibre automatics on prominent display in the Same Browne belts slung over many a tweed jacket. It was an impolitic remark but at least an honest one.[30]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Hardening Stance

Numbers-wise, the convention was a success. It had attracted – in the estimate of the Freeman’s Journal – 220 delegates, representing nineteen brigades, all of whom prepared to defy Mulcahy’s threat that any Army attendees would be suspended.[31]

In terms of soothing the nascent tensions, however, the event, in the words of Joseph Lawless, “proved itself to be a fiasco.” While Lawless did not attend the Convention – as an officer in the newly-formed National Army, he for one was mindful of Mulcahy’s warning – Lawless listened to numerous discussions in Fleming’s Hotel, another establishment where the delegates were either staying or called in at.

Despite his military commission, Lawless was able to mingle with his anti-Treaty friends. But there was little disguising the fact that they now regarded him as an enemy, however joking they were in their references to him as a ‘Free Stater’.

Lynch, Lawless thought when he saw him, “was concerned and somewhat perturbed at this turn of events.” Things were clearly not moving in a direction to his liking. Others were less finicky as they openly talked about their intentions to pack the Convention with delegates in order to shift the Army into a definite anti-Treaty stance. Not that the Convention would necessarily be the last word:

When it became apparent that their plane [sic] was unlikely to succeed, their interest in the convention lessened, and from the flippant remarks made about it, it seemed clear that they did not feel bound by anything that happened there unless it accorded with their own views.

A tendency to ignore unwanted rulings, even those from their own side, would prove a problem for the anti-Treaty IRA in its increasingly cavalier attitude towards discipline. Even more worrying was the talk at the Convention, however vague, of civil war. Even so, Lawless did not think that anyone believed that such a dire possibility could or would really occur.[32]

Reaffirmed Allegiances

Guards posted at the doors to the Mansion House had barred anyone from the press, ensuring that the public was left in the dark as to what had gone on inside. Shortly afterwards, the Convention attendees moved to amend that by publishing the resolutions they had passed, giving some indication to the rest of the country as to the general direction they intended to take the IRA:

  1. That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
  2. That it should be maintained as the Army of the Irish Republic, under an Executive appointed by the convention.
  3. That the Army shall be under the supreme control of such Executive, which shall draft a constitution for submission to a subsequent convention.[33]
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Richard Mulcahy

There was no room here for GHQ, the Dáil or anything that smacked of the Treaty. Forty years later, Deasy would have the opportunity to pose a question to Mulcahy, who confirmed that it had been on his advice that the Provisional Government banned the Convention, convinced as he was that it would only lead to further division and turmoil. Deasy argued back that such a heavy-handed move did nothing but offend those who were otherwise moderate in their opposition to the Treaty, Lynch included.

Whether Mulcahy had been correct, if unsuccessful, in trying to nip the problem in the bud, or if he unwittingly pushed many down the path he was hoping to avoid, is one of the many unanswerable questions that riddle this contentious period in Irish history.[34]

Influence and Respect

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Oscar Traynor

A temporary Executive which had been appointed during the Convention met the following day in Gardiner Street. After arriving late with the other members of the First Southern Division who were on the Executive, Lynch surprised the rest by announcing that there were too many Dubliners on the board and too few from his own Division.

Upset at this brusqueness, Oscar Traynor and Joseph O’Connor, both officers in the Dublin IRA, withdrew from the meeting. It took a day or two for the pair to swallow their pride and return to help the rest of the Executive iron out the details for the next convention on the 9th April.[35]

Lynch once again had his way, when three of his allies – Deasy, O’Donoghue and another Corkman, Tom Hales – were among the sixteen men elected to the Executive. When asked beforehand as to the reasons for the April convention, Lynch replied that he wanted to ensure that those particular three were with him on the new ruling board.

It was a measure of the trust in which he had in his Corkonian comrades. At the end of this latest convention, the new leadership body met and reaffirmed Lynch as their Chief of Staff – not that there were any other contenders – with Deasy replacing him as O/C of the First Southern Division.[36]

Despite this easy assumption of power, Lynch’s authority was not quite as assured as his rank might apply. The problem was, in the opinion of Joseph O’Connor, that while there were many worthy individuals on the Executive, none – Lynch included – were strong enough to rule the others.

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Group photograph of anti-Treaty IRA members at the Mansion House, 1922, with Liam Lynch (fourth from the left in the front row), Florence O’Donoghue (left of Lynch) and Liam Deasy (right of Lynch)

Fault lines

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Rory O’Connor

Consequently, cracks emerged, out of which two main factions were formed, with neither feeling it necessary to accommodate the other when they disagreed. “The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor remembered the sorry situation.[37]

This was despite the advantage Lynch held through his position as Chief of Staff. According to O’Malley, Lynch “possessed the same influence as any of the other members, although perhaps his words were listened to with added respect.”[38]

But it might be equally true to say that Lynch had no more influence than the others, and even that was often grudgingly allowed.

As for respect, it was to be in short supply, as Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue found themselves under suspicion by their more hard-line Executive peers, most notably Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Séumas Robinson. While the latter group had lost all respect for former comrades like Collins, Mulcahy and O’Duffy, they gave only scant more regard towards Lynch and his cohorts, seeing them as well-meaning but lacking in the necessary zeal to be counted on.[39]

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride summed up this attitude of wary condescension in his memoirs. The future government minister admitted that he did not know Lynch very well, only that he appeared to be the strong, silent type. MacBride assumed he was capable, otherwise he would not have risen to where he was. The officers under his command, at least, respected him considerably. But, all the same, MacBride could not help regarding his Chief of Staff as, at heart, a bit of a compromiser.[40]

Which may say more about MacBride, but it showed the difficulties Lynch would face in guiding his men through the difficult times ahead – men who would show little patience for any sort of guidance.

To be continued in: The Chains of Trust: Liam Lynch and the Slide into Civil War, 1922 (Part II)

References

[1] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992), pp. 312-5

[2] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 375-6

[3] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 27-30 ; Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 36,251/19

[4] NLI, MS 36,251/18

[5] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7a/5

[6] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, NLI, MS 31,239

[7] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 33-4

[8] Ibid, p. 95

[9] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,244

[10] Ibid, MS 31,240/1

[11] Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/22

[12] Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

[13] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, p. 32

[14] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 93

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 96 ; O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[16] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981), p. 179

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 237

[18] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 70-2

[19] Ibid, p. 72

[20] Limerick Chronicle, 18/02/1922

[21] Ibid, 07/03/1922

[22] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 76-8

[23] Limerick Chronicle, 09/03/1922

[24] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 80-1

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 142-3

[26] Limerick Chronicle, 11/03/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 82

[27] Irish Independent, 27/04/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 81-82

[28] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 83-5

[29] Farrington, Annie (BMH / WS 749), pp. 5-6

[30] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 148

[31] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[32] Lawless, Joseph V. (BMH / WS 1,043), pp. 436-7

[33] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[34] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 38-9

[35] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 3-4

[36] MacEoin, p. 291 ; O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 224

[37] O’Connor, pp. 4, 10

[38] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 86

[39] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 39-40

[40] MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005), p. 93

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981)

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

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

Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992)

MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Limerick Chronicle

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Farrington, Annie, WS 749

Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1,043

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

 

National Library of Ireland Collections

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Liam Lynch Papers

 

University College Dublin Archive

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Betrayal: The Civil War in Co. Kilkenny, December 1922

Callan Barracks

Private Peter Swift of the National Army was taking a break in the canteen of Callan Barracks, Co. Kilkenny, on the 14th December 1922 when Captain Edward Somers entered in a jovial mood. Somers announced that there was a truce now on, which would make a nice change from the internecine conflict that had been disrupting the country for the past seven months. To celebrate, Somers left a pound on the counter and told the server to give every man in the garrison a drink.

Which was all very well but Swift still had guard duty to perform. He went outside, the time being 6:30 pm, and told the sentry by the bridge about the truce. As he was crossing the bridge, a man ran up to him with a revolver in hand and told him put his hands up. Meanwhile, more newcomers were rushing the canteen inside, taking the startled soldiers captive. After being deprived of any ammunition on them, the prisoners were marched to the guardroom in the barracks where they spent the night before being released in the morning.

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Free State soldiers with anti-Treaty prisoners

The Men on the Hills

It would transpire that no less than three National Army officers had facilitated the coup. Lieutenant Kerwick had been talking with Sergeant William O’Neill the evening before in the canteen in Callan Barracks where they were both based. As O’Neill later described in his report, when he asked which side was in the right, Kerwick, who had had a fair amount to drink, replied “the men on the hills.”

O’Neill did not need to ask who he meant by that. Despite the unsettling topic of conversation – tellingly, he felt the need to add in his report how he had told Kerwick he would never betray his comrades, as if to ensure his own name was clear – O’Neill had no idea at that point what Kerwick had planned.

The next day, O’Neill took over as Sergeant of the Guard at noon. Somers dropped by to ask him for loan of his revolver, saying that he was bound for nearby Kilkenny town. The captain drove away in a motorcar with Kerwick, the pair returning later that day at 6 pm. Somers pulled out a sheet of paper and said that a truce was now in effect, warning O’Neill not to fire any shots that would break the newly formed peace.

Half an hour later, Kerwick came to talk to the sentry on duty. When asked by the lieutenant to give up his rifle, the sentry refused. Not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, Kerwick pulled out his revolver and ordered the hapless sentry to comply. Upon witnessing this, O’Neill drew his own rifle but found he was missing its magazine. He later blamed Lieutenant Doyle, the third traitorous officer in the garrison, for surreptitiously removing it beforehand.

Meanwhile, Somers and his new friends were disarming the remaining garrison in the building. All the Free Staters were given the chance of joining their captors in the canteen – in others words, to switch sides – but, according to O’Neill, only one of them accepted. O’Neill told in his report how he had been offered money to defect but, as nobody else was made such an offer, it seems doubtful that this happened.

1922-1923

Wrong-Footed

Corporal T. Sullivan, a native of Tipperary, told a slightly different account to Swift’s and O’Neill’s. He was leaving the canteen at 6:45 (the times more-or-less corresponding in all three versions) when he came across Bill Quirke, a notable Anti-Treayite leader, with a revolver in each hand. Quirke shouted ‘hands up’ but Sullivan assumed he was playacting. Otherwise, why would Lieutenant Doyle be with Quirke? And hadn’t Captain Somers announced some sort of truce just now?

Sullivan walked back into the canteen, followed by Quirke and Doyle, who told the dozen men present to put their hands up. Finally realising that the situation was serious, Sullivan and the others obeyed. As they were walked to the guard room, they saw that the place was swarming with unfamiliar men, one of whom took the opportunity to rob Sullivan of his bootstraps at gunpoint while the prisoners waited in the guardroom.

Quirke then told Sullivan to get another man and load all the equipment in the barracks onto the vehicles outside. When Sullivan went out to do so, one of the Anti-Treatyites, Tom Sadlier, took the chance to ask his name, and then inquired if he was the brother of someone he knew from Tipperary. Showing how small a place Ireland could be, Sullivan confirmed that he was and said: “Is it here you are instead of being out helping us?” Sadlier responded by inviting Sullivan to come with them but he declined.

Sullivan helped to load the vehicles, of which he saw one big lorry and a bus stolen from the town of Callan. When done, they were taken back to the guard room, where the turncoat Doyle told them to give up their boots. Sadlier intervened, telling them to keep their footwear on and that he would not be leaving anyone barefooted. A chivalrous foe, he went so far as to retrieve the boots already taken and return them to their owners.

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After the raiders had departed with their plunder, Sullivan left the barracks for town with some of his comrades. He stayed at a convenient house for a couple of hours before returning to the barracks with two companions. On their way back, they were held up by three more Anti-Treatyites who searched them but were considerate enough to warn them to stay off the streets in case a fight broke out between them and any Free State reinforcements.

Sullivan stayed in the barracks for half an hour before leaving again, and was yet again held up by three men, one of whom had been in the party that had waylaid him before, and – in an awkward reunion – two of which he knew already, one from Tipperary. After denying he had any ammunition on him to take, Sullivan was allowed to go to town, where he spent the night with some friends.[1]

The Three Barracks

All three men eventually made their way to Kilkenny Barracks. That at least was still in the hands of the National Army but the same could not be said for the ones in Mullinavat and Thomastown. They too had been seized in surprise attacks with their garrisons disarmed and turned loose, making it a humiliating total of three outposts defeated within less than twenty-four hours, all without a shot needing to be fired.

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Denis Lacey

After Callan Barracks, the one at Thomastown had been the next to fall. Led by Denis Lacey, about eighty Anti-Treatyites, most in stolen uniforms from the National Army, drove through the night in Crossley Tenders and motorcars. They swiftly overwhelmed the surprised garrison upon arrival before searching door-to-door through Thomastown for any leftover Free Staters.

The only holdouts were the Civic Guards, the nascent police force of the new state, who had barricaded themselves in the courthouse. Undeterred, the Anti-Treatyites broke a window in the building and gave the occupants ten minutes to clear out before they would set it on fire.

The policemen capitulated at that, and all that was left for the victors to do was steal their bicycles and set the courthouse ablaze as promised. Within a few hours, there was nothing left of the building but its four smouldering walls.

The Anti-Treatyites had already left by then in the early hours of the morning, having blocked the roads out of town with felled trees, cut all telegraph wires and torn up the railway line between Thomastown and Kilkenny. Nobody could accuse them of not being thorough. They followed through to Mullinavat Barracks which fell just as effortlessly as the previous two.[2]

Responsible Officers

While reviewing the causes for the debacle, the top brass of the National Army quickly identified Captain Somers as their prime Judas. An intelligence report on the 16th December, two days afterwards, told of how the “procedure for betrayal was the same in all cases. He entered the three Garrisons, shaking hands with the Officer in Charge, having a party of Irregulars with him in full National Army uniform.”

Up to then, Somers had been regarded as a responsible officer.

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Richard Mulcahy

Another report on the same day, from General John T. Prout to his superior, Richard Mulcahy, gave some background information. Prior to the debacle, a column of Anti-Treatyites (or ‘Irregulars’, as the Free State authorities preferred in an attempt to deny their enemies any legitimacy) had been located at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary.

After an engagement between them and the National Army (for which Prout gives no details), the former split into two columns, each heading in a different direction. In addition to Denis Lacey, the group responsible for the triple coups was led by a number of prominent Irregulars: Séumas Robinson, Tom Barry and Bill Quirk. With the exception of Barry, all were members in the Tipperary Irish Republican Army (IRA).

As for the turncoats: “No efforts will be spared in arresting and punishing the guilty officers,” Prout assured his commanding officer.

A meeting between President W.T. Cosgrave and Denis J. Gorey, the TD for Kilkenny, gave some further insight into the treachery. For one, there had already been a disturbing level of complacency, if not collusion, amongst the local Free State authorities. Edward Aylward, the O/C of the anti-Treaty Kilkenny IRA, was known to have been at home indulging in bird-shooting but no efforts had been made to arrest him. Instead, Captain Somers and Lieutenant Kerwick had been happily drinking with Aylward in the week before their perfidy was revealed.

A man who kept his ears to the ground, Gorey was able to provide further details on what had happened at Thomastown Barracks. It was Kerwick who had led the Irregulars there and had gone as far as to be the one to cry ‘hands up’ as the garrison paused for tea. As in Callan, the defeated men were given the choice of defecting as well. Only nine out of the eighty-five Free Staters accepted, the rest refusing to go anywhere with their captors except as prisoners, showing that however slack in discipline, they were not completely faithless.

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The Blame

Nonetheless, there had been much to be desired with the garrisons. According to Gorey, the local people in the county, particularly the clergy, had been passing information to the barracks, only to have it neglected, if not outright ignored. In one such case, the National Army was warned of the presence of seventy-five Irregulars in Kilmanagh, Co. Kilkenny, who could all have been rounded up had the Army acted promptly. By the time it finally did so, two days later, its soldiers arrived to find that the enemy had already moved on.

That the Free State garrisons in Co. Kilkenny were in the habit of squandering such tips was corroborated by an internal military report, written on the 11th December, three days before the humiliation of the triple coups. “The people gave information in the beginning,” the report said, “but no action was taken, with the result that the people got fed up and ceased to give information.”

Discipline in the Army outposts in general was terrible, conditions filthy and the officers in charge seemed to regard the whole business as none of theirs. Drink was also a problem, particularly on payday when the garrisons would be so inebriated and quarrelsome amongst themselves – so fumed the report – that the barracks could be taken with rotten eggs.

If the author of the report was exaggerating, then – as it turned out – it was not by much.

So bad were the Kilkenny soldiers that they were starting to have a detrimental effect while posted in other counties. Those in the Waterford Command were dismissed by their peers as unreliable, an example being a sergeant who deserted with two of the anti-Treaty prisoners in his charge. He was captured a fortnight later while operating with the same men he had been entrusted with guarding. The tendency of Kilkenny officers towards treachery was evidently not limited to within Kilkenny itself.

General Prout

But when a fish rots, it starts at its head. General Prout was very much aware of the deficiencies of the men under his command but, continued the report, he had done nothing about it. Instead, his behaviour only encouraged the worst elements.

Captain Timmons, the former O/C of Waterford Prison, was sent to Kilkenny on charges of carelessness, having allowed two of his prisoners to escape. Not only was no action taken against Timmons but he was promoted to the rank of assistant adjutant. No wonder, said the report, that the competent officers in Kilkenny were discouraged when they saw their bad apples rewarded.

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Dáil Deputy Gorey would have agreed with the report’s findings. According to the TD, some officers had been sent from Clonmel to Kilkenny for trial, only to be let off by Prout who merely told them to be more careful next time. At least there was one good Kilkenny officer in Gorey’s estimation but he was not popular with his peers, which limited what he could accomplish.

The relationships between senior officers were poor for the most part. Prout was well-liked but probably because he demanded so little from those around him, preferring to lie low and take things easy.

“There is general agreement,” Gorey concluded, “that Prout ought to be removed.” It was a blunt assessment, but there were others who were starting to wonder.

Peace Talks

If he did not already, General Mulcahy would soon have reason to blame Prout and his easy-going manner as much as the treachery of others for the military failings in Kilkenny.

On the 17th December, three days after the triple fiasco, a wireless message was sent from the Kilkenny Command to Portobello Barracks, Dublin. The Anti-Treatyites responsible had crossed the River Suir and were now in Rathcormack, Co Waterford. Their leaders were requesting a conference with the Officer Commanding (O/C) in Carrick-on-Suir Barracks, possibly to discuss a ceasefire of sorts. Such a thing was not unprecedented; Captain Kelly, the Free State O/C of Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, had recently agreed to a truce with the Republican enemy.

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National Army checkpoint

The reply came from Portobello Barracks on the same day, first to complain that the name of the original sender had not been stated, the patience of the National Army HQ with the slovenly ways of its Kilkenny division evidently wearing thin. Carrick Barracks were to be placed on heightened alert and the Anti-Treatyites in Rathcormack to be attacked. As for Captain Kelly, he was to be placed under arrest for his presumptuous brokering.

The next message came directly from Prout. First he sought to make amends for the earlier slipup by naming Captain Walpole as the sender of the original dispatch. Rathcormack was being scouted and any Irregulars found there would be engaged. The Carrick O/C would be told not to accept any further invitations: “Personal interferences with them will in future be regarded as treachery and punishable as such. Capt. Kelly being placed under arrest.”

Gratified by the change in attitude from Kilkenny, the next reply from Portobello was an encouraging one: “Hope you get the Rathcormack bunch. Tell Walpole to prepare case against Kelly. It would be well perhaps to let us have copy of evidence against him.” The National Army seemed at last willing to operate in a professional manner where Kilkenny was concerned.

No Compromise?

The following day, Prout reported some peace feelers that had been made in his own direction. Through a local contact in the Club House Hotel in Kilkenny, Prout had been contacted by Séumas Robinson, he of the Soloheadbeg ambush fame and one of the anti-Treaty leaders involved in the triple barracks coup.

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Club House Hotel, Kilkenny

Robinson, according to Prout in his message to his superiors, desired to meet with his Free State counterpart in order to discuss the possible surrender of his men’s weapons. Robinson had stated to Prout that he was “quite satisfied to let arms come in, in small numbers provided the men who hand them in will not be further molested by National Troops.”

Furthermore: “The interview is also to arrange the best way and to arrange about men who wish to join the National Army.” After the heavy fighting in the Civil War so far and the recent success of the Anti-Treatyites in Kilkenny, this volte-face is hard to credit. Prout, however, seemed willing to take it in good faith.

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Séumas Robinson

Robinson appeared confident that he could deliver his end of any bargain. He stressed that as the officer in charge of the Republicans in the area, the others such as Denis Lacey and Bill Quirke would have no choice but defer to him (a questionable claim, what with Robinson’s increasing isolation as a leader and the tendency of strong-minded subordinates like Lacey to go their own way).[3]

The day after, Prout forwarded to Mulcahy the details of another outreach he had received. An unnamed individual had called on the general that evening as an intermediary from the enemy, asking if Prout could get in touch with Major Tom Ennis – another officer in the National Army – and meet Robinson at any place they chose to discuss terms of settlement.[4]

Ennis had previously met Republican representatives earlier that year in October. While that attempt at a ceasefire had gone nowhere, Ennis was evidently a man the Anti-Treatyites liked and trusted.[5]

Prout proudly informed Mulcahy how he had told the intermediary that he had no authority to discuss such terms. He also related how he had been approached by another go-between before, likewise in the name of peace, but he would have none of it: “I told him that the laying down of arms and recognition of the People’s Government was the only means to a settlement, and that to this there was no compromise.”

Having fallen short of a complete agreement, Robinson’s intermediary pressed on, asking if he thought the anti-Treaty combatants would be allowed their freedom at least if they handed in their weapons. Feeling more generous, Prout answered that he thought they would.

Overall, Prout believed the meeting had gone well for both representatives:

It is the opinion of the persons who have just called that they were rather pleased with my attitude at the first discussion with the result that they wish to meet myself and Ennis. This person says that they are considering giving up arms in some way that will save their faces, by surrendering them a few days at a time, or leaving them where they could be picked up by us and let the fighting gradually die down.[6]

Prout’s visitor continued to press his luck and asked for a four-day truce for the Anti-Treatyites to discuss the matter. Even the lenient Prout thought this a step too far and told the other that this also was not in his power to discuss.

No Weakness

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Dan Breen

Four days later, on the 23rd December, Prout kept Mulcahy abreast of yet another personal peace-feeler, again through another an third party, this one sent by the famed Dan Breen. Prout’s report was markedly different in tone to his last, lacking the confidence of before and replaced instead by an almost cringing desire to please.

This third party had passed on another request to meet for peace terms. Prout had replied that he had no power to do such a thing. Changing his tack, the other man said that Breen would be willing to meet with anyone in authority, either here in Kilkenny or in Dublin if he was granted a free pass.

Prout was no more obliging there. He stressed to Mulcahy that he was making his report reluctantly lest his actions be seen as weakness on his part, which he assured was not the case. Prout had met with the enemy emissary purely for the sake of information and promised not to do so again if ordered. Prout’s competence may have been a growing matter of concern but he was at least perceptive enough to pick up on the growing apathy towards him and did his best, in his own clumsy, clueless way, to make amends.

Eamon Price

Prout’s willingness to improve only went so far, however. A fact-finding mission by Commandant-General Eamon Price to Kilkenny in January 1923 found the general distinctly cool. While not unfriendly, he did display a lack of cordiality that did not indicate an eagerness to cooperate (though Price generously put it down to Prout being Prout).

After inspecting the area, Price reported a state of “extreme lassitude” among the soldiers there. This he attributed to a number of factors:

  1. The undermining of morale by the peace efforts of Robinson and Breen. Clearly, Price did not consider them to have been sincere as Prout did. Price repeated Prout’s insistence that he had not met Breen in person but Price had his doubts there.
  2. The apparent inactivity by the Irregulars, which in turn led to…
  3. …inactivity by the National Army soldiers.
  4. The reaction to the shocking surrenders of the Callan-Thomastown-Mullinvat bases. While this had had the beneficial effect of making the men more determined to fight, it had also made then overcautious and – unsurprisingly – distrustful of their officers.
  5. The lack of initiative on the part of the Kilkenny HQ.

Price attributed Point E as the chief cause of the lethargy. The command staff in Kilkenny had become a dumping ground for cowardly, useless and otherwise “buckshee” officers. This was in no small part Prout’s fault, lacking as he did the strength and decisiveness to control his subordinates, but the optimistic Price was sure that the addition of a good adjutant would improve matters.

Richard Mulcahy

people_cosgrave
W.T. Cosgrave

Mulcahy must have been mulling over these conclusions when he made his own report on the Kilkenny situation to his superior, President W.T. Cosgrave, two days later.

It did not have a happy start. Captain Kelly, whose arrest Mulcahy had ordered for brokering with the enemy, had turned his coat in full and defected, taking with him confidential reports that Mulcahy, as the general candidly admitted, had been “fool enough to supply him with.” The National Army had yet to solve the problem of its Kilkenny officers being spectacularly unreliable.

The southern-western corner of Kilkenny, from Callan to Waterford, remained the troubled zone. There were the occasional raids from neighbouring Tipperary by Irregular columns like the ones that had overwhelmed the three barracks in the month before, but the main threat, according to Mulcahy, were the local Anti-Treatyites. These ones stayed closer to home, spying for and working with the columns when they passed through from Tipperary.

Mulcahy suggested that eight to ten such individuals in the hotspot of Mooncoln should be arrested, along with four or five from four other parishes. This, the general reckoned, should be enough to pacify the area.

As for the pitiable performance of the National Army in Kilkenny, Mulcahy listed the reasons as to why:

  • The treachery of certain officers and the ineptitude of the loyal ones.
  • The insufficient number of troops in Kilkenny and the isolation of posts in Callan, Thomastown and Mullinavat which left them vulnerable, as had already been shown.
  • The man who was supposed to be in charge, General Prout, was too weak and guileless to handle “traitorous or semi-mutinous incompetents” in an area too large to handle without loyal or competent officers.

As for possible solutions:

  • For there to be more soldiers stationed in Kilkenny, “preferably outsiders.” Showing the close affinity between the Free State and the Church, the bishops and other clergy could be privately asked to organize a recruitment drive for the Army.
  • The Kilkenny officers to be transferred to other counties and replace them with – again – outsiders.
  • Prout also to be transferred out of Kilkenny but – with an eye to Army discipline – not reduced in rank or otherwise humiliated.
  • Until more men could be spared for Kilkenny, the weak posts at Thomastown, Mullinavat and Callan should be discontinued in favour of three or four columns, each consisting of twenty to twenty-five men.
  • The organising of an efficient intelligence system.

On the last point, Mulcahy could no longer contain himself:

The present methods are most saddening. Nothing that could be dignified with the name of a system can be said to exist. The local clergy and local leaders would in most cases be only too delighted to help, but they seem completely ignored, and are abandoning in despair the virtual forcing of information down Rip-Van-Winkle throats.

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Richard Mulcahy

Mulcahy elaborated on the proposed columns in his fourth point. These units would stay mobile by changing accommodation constantly, as the Irregular columns were already doing. This way, they could avoid being rushed, as had happened at Callan-Thomastown-Mullinvat, and gradually trap the local Anti-Treatyites.

In short, flexibility, initiative and good information gathering would win the day. Showing off his knowledge of history, Mulcahy summarised thusly: “Boer, rather than Flanders tactics are required in South West Kilkenny.”[7]

‘Boer’ against ‘Flanders’

The start of the year saw the National Army willing at long last to put an end to its ‘Rip Van Winkle’ performance. Breen noted the extra precautions taken by the Free Staters to prevent a repeat of the humiliations at Thomastown, Mullinavat and Callan. Guards were doubled in their barracks, patrols became more frequent and, overall, the soldiers grew more alert. Following Mulcahy’s advice to adopt ‘Boer’ tactics over ‘Flanders’ ones, the Army sent out large scouting parties to hunt down the guerrillas in the countryside.

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By January 1923, the National Army was able to take the fight to the enemy. A number of guerrilla dugouts were discovered in Tipperary, along with large quantities of arms and ammunitions, confidential reports and even a printing press. Several Anti-Treatyites were rounded up, one of whom, Dan Breen’s brother Martin, was shot dead while resisting.[8]

The Free State military had done its best in Kilkenny to prove the maxim that wars are lost by one side as much as won by the other. Its dismal performance in December 1922 was overwhelmingly the fault of abysmal leadership, from the weak and vacillating example set by General Prout to the treachery of officers willing to hand over their own men. Internal documents reveal the considerable frustration of senior Army staff as they faced an uncomfortable discovery: you can trust your enemies to attack but you do not necessarily know what your allies are planning.

 

References

[1] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7/B/64

[2] Kilkenny People, 23/12/1922

[3] Hopkinson, Michael, Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), pp. 208-9

[4] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/64

[5] Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 10,973/15/4

[6] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/64

[7] Ibid

[8] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763) pp. 133, 135

 

Bibliography

 Book

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

Bureau of Military History Statement

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Document Collections

Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin

Ernie O’Malley Papers, National Library of Ireland

Newspaper

Kilkenny People

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

A Man for all the Seasons

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

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

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

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

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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Dan Breen (seated)

Kathleen Kincaid

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

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

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

Dear Mr Feehan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Et Tu, Tipperary?

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

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

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

Who’s in Charge?

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

Daniel_Breen_police_notice.jpg

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

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

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

The Man Not Present?

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

Escape - O'Malley
Ernie O’Malley

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

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

hollyford
Hollyford RIC Barracks

Father Colmcille

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

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

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

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Cistercian monastery, Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth

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

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

‘A Locker-Room of Deadly Shots’

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

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

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

Motives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Make the Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

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

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

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

References

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

[2] Ibid, p. 5

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

[4] Ibid, p. 100

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

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

[7] Ibid, pp. 121-122

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

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

[10] Ibid, p. 119

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid, p. 127

[17] Ibid, p. 117

[18] Ibid, p. 118, 119

[19] Ibid,  p. 99

[20] Ambrose, p. 178

[21] Ibid

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

[23] Ibid, p. 101

[24] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 156)

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 156

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Books

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

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

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

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

Military Service Pensions Acts 1949

Robinson, Séumas (Accessed 29/11/2014)

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

The Third Man

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

First Impressions

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

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

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

Sean_Treacy_circa_1919
Seán Treacy

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

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

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

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

Stooge?

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

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

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Dan Breen

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

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

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

Eamon O’Dwyer

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

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

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

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

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

Honesty, Hustle and Zeal

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

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

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

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Stafford Gaol

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

Soloheadbeg

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

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Site of the Soloheadbeg ambush

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

In Breen’s memoir, the details of the ambush were worked out between him and Treacy, with what Robinson might have thought being unimportant.[17] Breen went further in his BMH Statement in saying that Robinson had not been consulted at all about the ambush plans, and that neither he nor Treacy had told Robinson about their agreed plan to shoot the policemen whatever happened.

This was not because of distrust, but because they did not think it was any of his business to know – an extraordinary thing to say about the Brigade O/C. Robinson did not join the rest of the party in their stakeout of the prepared ambush site until a couple of days before the ambush took place, meaning he could have missed it entirely had the gelignite escort came earlier, and he was so far removed from the action that he did not learn that the RIC constables had been killed until he almost back home.[18]

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Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary

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

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

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

Michael Collins

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Michael Collins

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

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

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Lord French

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

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

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

Martin_savage
Martin Savage

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

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

Ernie O’Malley

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

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

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Ernie O’Malley

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

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

The Man Who Was Not There?

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

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

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Hollyford RIC Barracks, Co. Tipperary

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

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

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

Lepidus?

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

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

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

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

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IRA Flying Column of the Third Tipperary Brigade

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

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

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Group photo of the Cashel Company, as part of the Third Tipperary Brigade (note the pistol in the man standing in the middle)

Roads Not Taken

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

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

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Photo of Seán Treacy, taken moments before his death in Dublin

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

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

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Seán Hogan

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

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

Maintaining Discipline

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

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

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Thurles, Co. Tipperary

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

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

Cattle-Raids and Rallies

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

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

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IRA members standing to attention

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

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

 

See also:

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

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

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

[2] O’Malley, p. 183

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Ibid, p. 25

[13] Ibid, p. 4

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

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

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

[17] Ibid, p. 31-32

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

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

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

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

[22] Ibid, pp. 49-50

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

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

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

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

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

[28] Ibid, p. 432

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[42] Ibid, pp. 35-36

[43] Ibid, p. 57

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

[45] Ibid

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

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Seán, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1739

Davern, Michael, WS 1348

Keane, Patrick, WS 1300

Keating, James, WS 1220

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGrath, Edmond, WS 1393

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1403

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Books

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

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

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

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

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

Other Material

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