Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

A continuation of: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)

‘Malicious and Wanton’

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T.M. Healy

The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.

“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.

“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”

Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:

Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.

You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.

By Order of the Army Executive.

With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.

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The remnants of the Freeman’s Journal printing equipment, March 1922

As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.

But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:

Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.

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Rory O’Connor

Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.

“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”[1]

Allegiances Remade and Broken

Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.

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Piaras Béaslaí

“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”[2]

The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.

“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:

That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.

That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.

Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.

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IRA delegates to the Convention on the 26th March 1922

Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.

This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”

A Trial of Strength

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Florence O’Donoghue

Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:

How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.[3]

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Todd Andrews

As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.

Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:

In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.[4]

Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”[5]

The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”

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Pro-Treaty poster, portraying the Anti-Treatyites as cowards and opportunists

Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”[6]

The Power of the Sledge

Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.

The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.

freemans20journal20banner-1Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.[7]

The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.

“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”[8]

de622164377d5fd7e276dfe50a772cfcThe Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:

The sledge is not all-powerful.

On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.

Today we offer our readers seven.

The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.

Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.

The country has taken the measure of the sledges.

Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.

But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?

Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?

What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?[9]

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IRA men

A Tremendous Responsibility

To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:

…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.

The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.[10]

Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.

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The Four Courts, Dublin

O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.

Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”[11]

It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.

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Tom Hales

The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.[12]

Closing Ranks

The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.

In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:

  • The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
  • A general election with an aim towards:
  • A government with the confidence of the whole country.

In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.

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IRA men in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:

…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.

As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:

…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.[13]

Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:

…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.[14]

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Michael Collins

But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.

From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”[15]

Who’s in Charge?

O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.

As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.

When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.[16]

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IRA men with rifles

This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:

It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.

Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.[17]

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Seán O’Hegarty

On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.

Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.[18]

Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.

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Liam Deasy

Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.[19]

“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.[20]

It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.[21]

‘Anxious Consideration’

Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.

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IRA leaders from both sides during the May 1922 talks: (left to right) Seán Mac Eoin, Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows)

Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.

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Liam Lynch

“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.[22]

Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.

“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.[23]

The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.

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The Mansion House, Dublin

“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”[24]

War Demands

Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.

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Tom Barry

“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.[25]

Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:

The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.

In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.

By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.

mulcahy046A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.[26]

Tweaking the Lion’s Tail

Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.

As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.[27]

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David Lloyd George

While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.

To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.

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Alfred Cope

Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:

Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.

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Sir Henry Wilson

It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.

An Irish Comic Opera

Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:

It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.

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Sir Nevil Macready

O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.

Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:

Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.

O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.

Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.

“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”

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Pro-Treaty soldiers at the ready

To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”[28]

A Fanatic’s Spirituality

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Clare Sheridan

O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.[29]

O’Connor was a busy man and could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.

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IRA members at ease

In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:

Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.

Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.

anti-treaty-poster-freedomAs for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.

In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.

“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”

“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.[30]

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The assault on the Four Courts

Backseat Fighting

Within forty-eight hours, it was over.

A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:

Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.[31]

Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:

The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.[32]

O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.[33]

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The explosion of the Four Courts

However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:

The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.[34]

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Ernie O’Malley

If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.

“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”

No Compromises

Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.

“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.

For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”

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The ruins of the Four Courts

Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.

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W.T. Cograve

For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.

If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”

O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.

“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.[35]

The Men Behind the Walls

O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.

“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.[36]

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Peadar O’Donnell

That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.

“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”

It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.

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Liam Mellows

O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:

…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.

This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”

The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.

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Front gate of Mountjoy Prison, 1922

Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.[37]

‘The Quicklime on their Boots’

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Seán MacBride

O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.

Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.

MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.

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Paudeen O’Keefe

O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.

“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.

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Joe McKelvey

As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.

No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.

“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”

MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”

“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”

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Dick Barrett

Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.

O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.

That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.

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Execution by firing-squad during the Civil War (presumably staged)

No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:

The wardens strutted up and down,

And watched their herd of brutes,

Their uniforms were spic and span,

And they wore their Sunday suits,

But we knew the work they had been at,

By the quicklime on their boots.[38]

A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:

…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”[39]

No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.

References

[1] Irish Times, 19/07/1922

[2] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 240

[3] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1954), p. 219

[4] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 233

[5] Irish Times, 24/03/1922

[6] Freeman’s Journal, 24/03/1922

[7] Ibid, 29/03/1922

[8] Irish Times, 05/04/1922

[9] Freeman’s Journal, 01/05/1922

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 252

[11] Irish Times, 15/04/1922

[12] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 86-7 ; O’Donoghue, p. 244

[13] Cork Examiner, 02/05/1922

[14] Ibid, 03/05/1922

[15] Ibid, 04/05/1922

[16] Ibid, 29/05/1922

[17] Ibid, 30/05/1922

[18] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame, pp. 100-1

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

[20] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 4, 10

[21] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 25

[22] O’Donoghue, pp. 243-4

[23] 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. 24

[24] O’Donoghue, p. 244

[25] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 26-7

[26] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[27] Deasy, p. 42

[28] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), pp. 632-3, 651-5

[29] Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), p. 55

[30] Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018), pp. 107-9

[31] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[32] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 162

[33] Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012), p. 88

[34] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[35] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 175

[36] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 106-7

[37] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 19, 23, 27-9, 59, 64

[38] MacEoin, pp. 118-9

[39] Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 23/01/2020)

Bibliography

Books

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

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume II (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

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

Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012)

Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018)

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

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924])

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 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. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

Online Source

Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)

Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III) 

A continuation of: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

Plans and Pitfalls

Joseph Lawless was a busy man in his workshop at 198 Parnell Street, Dublin, where he churned out bombs for use by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The process was a simple one: a steel pipe sawn off to four inches and then sealed at either end, save for a hole drilled in one in which to insert the fuse. But this was too crude a method for Lawless’ exacting standards and so he argued to colleagues that his allocated funds would be better spent renovating the old foundry in the basement. With that, a more sophisticated type of explosive could be produced.

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Parnell Street, Dublin

His lobbying was successful enough for a visit to the workshop from Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the O/C and the Quartermaster of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively. The two officers listened as Lawless expounded on his proposal. While interested, McKee remained noncommittal, telling Lawless that he would send over Rory O’Connor, the Director of Engineering in the IRA GHQ, for a second opinion on the idea’s feasibility.

The man in question called in at the workshop a day or so later. Lawless’ first impression was not a promising one:

He struck me as peculiarly solemn and unsmiling, one might say lugubrious, and did not appear to listen to what I said when I began to explain the details of what I considered my plan for a bomb factory.

Where was the furnace? O’Connor asked Lawless while the latter was in mid-sentence. He wanted to examine it for himself.

Lawless took his graceless guest down to the basement, cautioning him that the furnace, in an unlit corner at the back, was missing the grating for its draught-pit in front. Ignoring this advice, O’Connor pressed on in the dark and, before Lawless could stop him, stumbled into the open hole, much to Lawless’ quiet amusement.

Still, no harm done save to O’Connor’s dignity and, after a few days, Lawless received word that his proposal had been approved by his Brigade superiors. O’Connor had evidently submitted a favourable report on his findings, however gauche he might have been in person.[1]

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Examples of the grenades manufactured in Parnell Street for the IRA

Different Impressions

O’Connor could have that effect on his fellow revolutionaries. Todd Andrews thought him “too forbidding a person to approach. He was saturnine in appearance, very dark-skinned, always in deep thought, brooding and worried. He did not look a healthy man.” But to Piaras Béaslaí, while he conceded that O’Connor’s “manner was not attractive to strangers…those who were intimate with him found him to be a very pleasant and sociable companion.”[2]

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David Neligan

Another one close enough to uncover O’Connor’s inner charm was David Neligan. “He was good company, a great talker, very cheerful,” Neligan remembered. Though he shared O’Connor’s political convictions, his role in the Irish struggle was a very different one: as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), Neligan had access to confidential information in Dublin Castle, which he leaked to his IRA contacts. He was walking through St Stephen’s Green with a DMP co-worker when the latter indicated a short, middle-aged man, with a face thin to the point of haggard, sitting nearby on a park bench.

“See him, Dave?” said the policeman. “He is a prominent Sinn Feiner. If he is there tomorrow, we’ll have him pulled.”

Having recognised O’Connor, Neligan made sure to pass on a warning, much to O’Connor’s gratitude. Though O’Connor had dodged arrest, Neligan was to see him in peril again, this time in the yard of Dublin Castle, being interrogated by a British intelligence officer. Neligan tried arguing that the suspect was merely a harmless eccentric but to no avail.

“I’m told,” said the officer, “that he is a prominent Shinner.”[3]

Which was true enough, and O’Connor was forwarded to Arbour Hill to join the other POWs there, including Lawless, who had likewise been collared. As if that was not bad enough. Lawless learnt the day after his apprehension, in December 1920, about the discovery of his Parnell Street workshop and the bomb-factory he had worked so hard to set up.

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British soldiers investigating captured IRA munitions

It was not the end of the war, of course, nor of Lawless’ part in it, and he handled the smuggling of letters in and out of Arbour Hill, thanks to bribed wardens. Through this, O’Connor was able to keep in contact with the rest of the revolutionary leadership, though there was something about O’Connor that Lawless found unsettling.

According to Lawless, it was an opinion shared by a number of the other inmates:

Rory was a solemn, unsmiling egotistical sort of person whom we looked upon as a little mad and did not take him too seriously.

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Con O’Donovan

At least the authority of Con O’Donovan helped keep things steady. As the elected commandant of the prisoners, O’Donovan liaised with the Arbour Hill governor and ensured the maintenance of discipline among the inmates. Near the end of January 1921, O’Donovan was transferred to Ballykinlar Camp, an internment centre set up to manage the overflow of captives taken by the Crown forces as the war intensified.

O’Donovan’s absence created a vacancy for the role of prison commandant, which Lawless was voted in to fill. Not all were pleased by this choice, however, as Lawless recalled:

The other candidate for the appointment was Rory O’Connor, who mooted around the claim that as a member of the IRA General Staff he was the senior officer in the prison. However, as I have already mentioned, the general body of prisoners did not quite trust Rory’s mental balance.

To smooth things over, Lawless pointed out to O’Connor that it was best for him not to gain too much prominence and instead remain anonymous among the mass of detainees. Despite his capture, O’Connor’s identity and true importance was unknown to his captors, who registered him under the assumed name he had provided.[4]

Prison Pump Politics

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Joseph Lawless in prison

O’Connor made no more complaints over who was what, though Lawless did not think he was entirely conciliated. In early March 1921, the inmates were paraded in the main hall, where the names of those due to be moved to the Curragh, Co. Kildare, were read out, around one hundred and fifty, which amounted to half their number.

Lawless and O’Connor were among those set to leave. While they waited, listening to the hum of the vehicles outside that were to be their transport, O’Connor sidled up to Lawless and asked in a whisper if he had any plans to escape along the way. To O’Connor’s displeasure, Lawless told him no, not for the moment, since they were sure to be heavily guarded, unless an opportunity happened to appear.

This wait-and-see attitude was not what O’Connor had been wanting to hear:

He then took up the heavy attitude with me and, speaking as a member of the General Staff, warned me that it was my duty as a prisoners’ commandant to organise an escape. Poor Rory was evidently still suffering from the snub to his dignity of my election as commandant against his candidature, and I regretted the necessity for a further snub when I replied that the matter rested safely in my hands.

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Rory O’Connor

Lawless at least refrained from the ‘snub’ of saying that he was less concerned about the journey ahead – he did not think much was likely to happen on the road – and more about O’Connor, who Lawless was sure would make another attempt at the position of commandant once they were in the Curragh. Not that Lawless desired leadership and its responsibilities but he wanted O’Connor in control even less.

Once he separated himself from O’Connor, he went to Peadar McMahon, a friend of his, and persuaded him to put himself forward for the role once they reached the Curragh. McMahon reluctantly agreed to do so but only on condition that Lawless would help shoulder the burden.

“All this may sound a bit like parish pump politics,” Lawless admitted when composing his account for posterity. Eager to avoid factions, he hoped that McMahon would be a unanimous choice…anyone would do, in fact, as long as it was not O’Connor.[5]

In that, Lawless had his way. McMahon was elected to be in charge for the duration of their stay in the Curragh, with Lawless his second-in-command as agreed. O’Connor had been outmanoeuvred, and Lawless prepared to make do as best he could to life behind the barbed wire-fences and sentry-points of the Rath Camp. Their new confinement was a circular mound, with a diameter of a hundred feet, which lay on a ridge just west of the Curragh. Rebels of a past generation had surrendered there in 1798, only for Crown forces to break the terms and massacre them.

Whether or not their captors knew of the site’s historical significance, it was a bleakly fitting place to store the latest crop of subversives. A city boy, Lawless was discomforted by the wide plains that stretched to the distant horizon whenever he looked outside his confinement, as well as awed at the British military strength on display elsewhere in the Curragh.[6]

Rath_Camp
Prison huts in the Rath Camp

When peace presented itself in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Lawless seized the chance. His acceptance of the controversial terms put him at odds with certain individuals, though this, if anything, only confirmed to him the correctness of his decision.

“Those of us who had any previous knowledge of men like Rory O’Connor and de Valera were not impressed by their pose of pure-souled patriotism,” Lawless wrote. “I had had a slight experience of Rory O’Connor in Arbour Hill and the Rath Camp and put him down as a crank.”[7]

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Prisoners inside the Rath Camp, with Joseph Lawless on the left

Getting Out

Crank or not, and whatever else could be said about him, O’Connor was most certainly not one to sit back and do nothing. Deprived of one goal, he soon found another.

Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at the Rath Camp was David E. Ryan of the Dublin Brigade. “The morning was bitterly cold and a drive of 30 miles was far from pleasant,” as he described the journey in a convoy of ten lorries, with two armoured cars at either end and a pair of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Clearly, the British authorities were taking no chances.

The passengers in Ryan’s transport passed the time by singing patriotic Irish songs, along with a parody of Rule Britannia, much to the amusement of the soldiers guarding them, if only because it infuriated their officer in charge. But ribaldry could only go so far in maintaining morale, and it was a tired and famished group who reached the Curragh, with little in the way of comfort to look forward to:

For the first week, on account of our changed addresses, we received none of the usual parcels from our friends outside, and to say that we were often hungry during that week would be putting it mildly.

Little wonder, then, that Ryan’s thoughts turned to the means of getting out and soon.

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Prisons seated inside the Rath Camp

For assistance, he turned to O’Connor, who he recognised, despite the fake name the other man went by. Side-lined O’Connor may have been over the prison hierarchy, but his record and standing still inspired respect, at least in Ryan: “He had often planned escapes for others. Now he was to have the pleasure of planning his own.”

The esteem went both ways when Ryan said he would reveal his scheme only on condition of being one of its beneficiaries. “That’s the spirit,” O’Connor replied. “You can do more outside than here. There are too many locked up.”

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Guard tower in the Rath Camp

And so Ryan explained how he had befriended Jerry Gaffney, a fellow IRA member who, while working as a carpenter on the premises – his true loyalty unbeknownst to his employers – had already helped to smuggle out some letters for Ryan. Though O’Connor was at first uncertain as to how far this stranger could be trusted, Ryan vouched for him, and so it was arranged for the three of them to meet the next day in one of the disused huts in the camp.

After reviewing their options, it was assessed that, in the knowledge that the wardens were tightening security, three men at most could make the attempt. Two would obviously be O’Connor and Ryan, as per their deal, but when the latter approached a prospective candidate for the third, the man – who Ryan refrained from naming in his account – declined on account of ill health. With time being of the essence, Ryan and O’Connor decided to proceed anyway with just the pair of them.

Caught Napping

The plan was for Gaffney to procure workmen’s tools and clothing, to be hidden in the same hut until O’Connor and Ryan could walk out, so disguised, amongst the actual workmen at the end of a shift at 5:30 pm. That was until, with two hours to go, O’Connor abruptly cancelled:

The tone of his remark did not invite questions and he went away hurriedly, but knowing Rory well I knew that he had some good reason for calling it off.

The reason, as O’Connor later explained to Ryan, was that if they absconded in the afternoon, the 6:30 roll-call would expose the two missing names. While such discovery was inevitable, O’Connor wanted to put as much distance between them and their jailers beforehand. And so it was agreed to go ahead the next day, at 12:30, which would give their absence almost the whole day of going unnoticed – that is, if all went as it should.

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Prisoners inside the yard of the Rath Camp

Ryan began having his doubts when he and O’Connor approached the exit. They had donned the dungarees and equipment, and pulled their caps low over faces smeared with dust as a finishing touch, but still Ryan fretted. The tension grew almost unbearable for him:

As we approached the gate I could feel my heart beating quickly, my breathing became jerky and my senses began to weaken.

He kept himself together in time to present his pass to the soldier on duty who, to his silent horror, knew him already as an inmate. Nonetheless, after the longest of pauses, the guard waved him through, whether because the dirt and overalls were a sufficient disguise or, if he recognised Ryan, due to natural human sympathy.

Once out of earshot, O’Connor exulted: “Thank God, they have been caught napping again.”

The fugitives cut through the fields towards Kildare Railway Station, where they bought two tickets, paying a little extra for returns with the money Gaffney had provided. When the authorities asked around for any suspicious duos who might have passed, who would think of the pair who were apparently planning to come back?

After stopping at Lucan, they were walking towards the trams when a lorry-load of Auxiliaries drove down the street towards them. Had their absence been rumbled? O’Connor feared so.

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Auxiliaries on a Crossley tender

“I’m afraid it’s all up but walk on,” he told Ryan. The Auxiliaries stopped them but only to ask for directions to Newbridge, which O’Connor politely provided.

That night, with Rory I had the pleasure of meeting and being congratulated by Michael Collins, Gearóid O’Sullivan and other members of the GHQ staff, all of whom were delighted to get a first-hand account of the first escape of prisoners from an internment camp in Ireland.[8]

The next day, in Dublin, O’Connor ran into Michael Knightly, a journalist who he had supplied with inside information about the past escapes he organised. It was a pleasant surprise for Knightly:

I had known he was a prisoner at the Curragh and I asked: “When did you get out?” Speaking in his usual slow manner, he said: “Ah, I escaped yesterday.”[9]

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Patrick Moran, one of the IRA prisoners executed on the 14th March 1921

David Neligan was another friend who spotted him about town, wearing a beard and clerical garb on the quays. When O’Connor appeared at an IRA gathering on the 14th March 1921, it was to great acclaim, the story of his exploit already in circulation. The celebratory mood was tinged, however, with the knowledge that six of their comrades had been executed that morning in Mounjoy. The solemnity extended to the rest of the city, where the trams stopped for the day, workers took time off and those walking the streets did so in silence.[10]

Suspicious Minds

And so the war dragged on. Exactly how it would end was undetermined: not until complete victory was achieved? Or would some sort of compromise be necessary? “If we clatther them hard enough we might get Dominion Home Rule,” said Dick McKee when asked that question, an indication that he leaned towards the latter resolution.[11]

Cathal Brugha
Cathal Brugha

These opposing viewpoints were in the air, if not quite in the open, during a couple of sessions of the IRA Executive in Parnell Square. On these two occasions, Cathal Brugha, as Minister for Defence and with characteristic pugnaciousness, accused Michael Collins of communicating with Dublin Castle without authorisation. Collins denied any such impropriety, while insisting on his prerogative to accept any information that came his way, whatever its origin.

On a seemingly unrelated note, at another meeting, Collins announced his resignation as Adjutant-General, requesting instead the role of Director of Intelligence. Brugha offered no protest; if anything, he seemed pleased at this development. Perhaps he thought this would clip the wings of the uppity Corkman, for the new post was not, on the face of it, particularly important.

When they were done, O’Connor turned to the man sitting next to him and asked Richard Walsh, the representative of the Connaught IRA, for a quiet word. The two departed from Parnell Square towards Parliament Street, while Walsh mulled over what had just happened. After they reached the Royal Exchange Hotel and found themselves a drink and a quiet corner, O’Connor unburdened himself of his concerns:

Rory was very worried about what Collins’s move meant…When summing up the events of the meeting, Rory O’Connor and myself came to the conclusion that while intelligence, its organisation and efficient establishment, was very necessary, it was also very dangerous as it had a boomerang quality that could hit back in an ugly way.

If intelligence-mining thus needed to be treated with care, was Collins the one to do so? Going by Brugha’s previous remarks about links between him and Dublin Castle, both O’Connor and Walsh were thinking not, as:

The danger would always be there that Collins and his group might use the intelligence system to make contacts to start negotiations with the enemy and make certain commitments that would prove a very serious handicap when proper official negotiations would be taken in hand.

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Michael Collins

Walsh did not provide a date for this discussion but it was presumably early in the war, before talks between the British Government and the Republican underground began in earnest. Unlike Brugha, who locked horns with Collins whenever he could, O’Connor had previously shown no indication that he held anything but trust towards him; indeed, the two had cooperated on a number of the famed prison-breaks.[12]

If Walsh’s story is accurate, while accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the factionism that would plague, and finally kill, the revolutionary movement was already incubating beneath the surface.

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Dermot O’Hegarty

In a further hint of things to come, another man, Dermot O’Hegarty, walked into the hotel and saw O’Connor and Walsh together. O’Hegarty was a close ally of Collins and it is telling that, when he joined the conversation, an argument soon grew between him and O’Connor. So heated was the exchange that Walsh felt it necessary to call over some of their mutual friends before things got out of hand.[13]

That would come later.

A Surprise Extreme

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Piaras Béaslaí

Still, even after the worse had happened, the past camaraderie could linger on. Piaras Béaslaí and O’Connor were to be mortal enemies, yet, when composing his memoirs, Béaslaí wrote of the other with respect: “He was a man of considerable ability in his particular brand of activity, and…took a leading part in the planning of the most successful achievements of the Volunteers.”

Among these deeds were the jail-breaks of 1919, of which Béaslaí was twice a beneficiary: from Mountjoy in March and then Strangeways, Manchester, in October. The bonds between brothers-in-arms, and perhaps gratitude on Béaslaí’s part, drew together the two men – and future foes – closely enough for Béaslaí to leave a detailed pen-portrait:

He was a man of education and culture who concealed a strong sense of humour under an air of gloomy solemnity. He was dark haired, of medium stature, slightly built, hollow-cheeked, and seemingly not very robust. He spoke in a deep cavernous voice.

However tight they may have been, Béaslaí was still taken aback by the direction O’Connor took when their cause came to a fork in the road. Previously, O’Connor had not seemed “very ‘extreme’ in his views,” but then, Béaslaí was not alone in misjudging him, for “the extreme line of action taken by him after the passing of the Treaty was a surprise to many who knew him well.”[14]

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The Irish delegation in London which resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, December 1921

It is possible that not even O’Connor initially knew which way to turn. When Collins returned to Dublin in December 1921 with the rest of the Irish Plenipotentiaries, having put pen to the paper of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the first things he did was to hold a forum of IRA luminaries, including O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Gearóid O’Sullivan, in the Mansion House. Collins could sign whatever he wanted before him, but he was not naïve enough to think that the opinions of the men with guns could be overlooked.

The conference went sufficiently well for Collins to preside over the subsequent luncheon at the Gresham Hotel. Among those present was Father Patrick J. Doyle, being on amicable terms with many of the men at the table, including O’Connor, who had joked in the past about how the priest would end up on the scaffold for his seditious acquaintances. As the party ate, Father Doyle was able to observe the demeanour of his friend:

Although Rory had voted at the Volunteer meeting against acceptance of the Treaty, he was quite reconciled to abide by the majority decision of the Volunteers in favour of it.

Far from brooding on what had happened, O’Connor appeared to be looking forward to the future:

During the lunch, he took part in an animated discussion about the formation that the new Irish Army should adopt and urged very enthusiastically the adoption of the Swiss system of formation.

And yet, as Doyle observed, “a few months later Rory was out in armed opposition to the Provisional Government.” The whole thing remained a mystery to the priest, even after the passage of time:

I have never yet met any of the Volunteer officers who took up arms in that cause who could give a coherent account of the tragic split that ensued after the acceptance of the majority decision.[15]

From the start, however, there were warning signs. Liam Archer worked under O’Connor in the IRA Engineering Department, and they were in the latter’s office on Marlborough Street, Dublin, when word of the Treaty reached them. Archer was as shocked as anyone at the idea of an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and asked O’Connor, as they walked to Collins’ own base in the Gresham, what they were to do:

He answered without hesitation – Oh, we must work it for all its worth, then after a slight pause he added But if I could get enough to support me I would oppose it wholeheartedly.[16]

In that, O’Connor would be true to his word.

The Soldier’s Song

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Ernie O’Malley

Even before the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and while the delegates to that national body debated the merits of the Anglo-Irish agreement, O’Connor met with four other senior IRA officers – Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows – for a parliament of their own on Heytesbury Street. The house at number 71 had been a reliable bolt-hole during the fight with the British and now it would serve as a venue for a conspiracy – this time against their own side.

“Rory’s eyes were sombre,” O’Malley noticed. “I noticed the grey streaks in his black hair.”

While all present were of like mind that the Treaty was unacceptable, binding as it did Ireland inside the British Empire, they were less certain on where the rest of the IRA stood. O’Connor wanted to waste no further time. “They mean to enforce to Treaty, but we must organise,” he said.

He was in favour of breaking away from GHQ as soon as the Dáil debates were over, seemingly not interested in whatever the result was. O’Malley approved of this bold course of action, as did Robinson, with Lynch keeping his own counsel – the odd man out, even then – and Mellows in less of a hurry, as he assured the others that the IRA would never tolerate the Treaty anyway. That the Dáil or the public might differ in opinion did not seem to occur to anyone, at least not to the extent it was worth considering.

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Liam Mellows

Mellows’ wait-and-see attitude carried the room, perhaps because no one wanted to make a definite decision, and it was agreed between them to keep in touch while seeking whatever allies that they could. “Rory’s quiet humour broke the gravity,” wrote O’Malley in his memoirs, “soon we were chatting and laughing.”[17]

It was no great surprise, at least to O’Malley, when the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty. Éamon de Valera resigned as its president in protest, though he appealed at a meeting of military men to put politics aside for the sake of unity and peace: a ship that had already sailed, to O’Malley’s mind, and to O’Connor’s as well.

The two met again when O’Malley dropped by the other’s house in Monkstown. O’Connor greeted him at the door, happy to see him, having sent word, which O’Malley had missed, for another, more exclusive, conclave that was to take place that evening in Dublin. While waiting, they killed time by playing records on the gramophone in the front room. The last tune was The Soldier’s Song, the anthem to the revolution, except O’Connor misplaced the needle of the gramophone, which drew out the notes and distorted the lyrics; appropriately so, thought O’Malley, a sign of the mess they were all in.[18]

irish_national_anthem_28191629Out in the Open

The pair took the tram to Grafton Street and then walked to Nelson’s Pillar, continuing on to the back of Marlborough Street where O’Connor conducted his work. More soon came, coming up the wooden steps to the main office: Liam Lynch, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire, Seán Russell and others.

The room was not well lit. We sat on chairs forming three sides of a square, which Rory’s desk completed. A prismatic compass, a map measurer and a celluloid protractor stood against the ledge of the desk. To one side of them were coloured mapping inks and small slender mapping pens. Maps hung on the wall – a large scale map of Dublin; a map of Ireland with the divisional areas inserted in red pencil.

O’Connor’s skin, O’Malley saw, looked darker than usual. The light from the windows touched his cheeks and cast the rest of his face in shadow.

Once he was made chairman, O’Connor got to the point: GHQ could not to be trusted. The IRA still stood but not for long, as O’Connor was sure it would be disbanded and replaced with tame pro-Treaty cuckoos. Already the Provisional Government was recruiting men for such a move, while those who might oppose it were confused and directionless.

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Free State soldiers on parade

With time thus of the essence, it was agreed by the men in the room, as O’Connor jotted down the minutes, for an IRA Convention to be held, the first in a long while. If the Provisional Government was to refuse one, then an independent command was to be formed at once, both as an alternative and a challenge.

Such was the mood that when Richard Mulcahy, shortly after O’Connor’s military meeting, called one of his own in the Banba Hall, Parnell Square, O’Malley attended with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat. Pro-Treaty officers sat in one half of the semi-circle of chairs, Anti-Treatyites making up the other, as if to formally announce the break.

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Banba Hall, 20 Parnell Square, Dublin

Choosing to overlook this unfortunate placement, Mulcahy, now the Minister of Defence, announced that their forces would continue to be the Republican Army. But O’Connor was not buying it. “A name will not make it so,” he said caustically as soon as Mulcahy had finished his piece.

The meeting escalated to Collins being called a traitor, provoking the Corkman to his feet in a rage. Mulcahy defused the tension with a few quiet words – an impressive feat, considering the passions simmering in the room. In a gesture of good faith, he proposed that the Anti-Treatyites appoint two of their number to attend GHQ meetings and ensure that nothing untoward was done.

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Liam Lynch

O’Connor asked for some privacy in another room to discuss this and, when there, asked the others what they thought. Most wanted to break away then and there with no further time wasted but Lynch insisted they give Mulcahy’s idea a try. As Lynch was in charge of the Cork and Kerry brigades in the First Southern Division, the largest and best-armed of the IRA blocs outside Dublin, the rest had no choice but to comply.

At least Mulcahy was open to the idea of an overdue IRA Convention. The Army had begun as an independent body, with its own procedures and policies and, for some like O’Connor, it was time to revive it as such.[19]

Law of the Jungle

Lynch had inadvertently exposed two profound and disturbing truths. Firstly, while the Anti-Treatyites could or would no longer work with their pro-Treaty counterparts, they were scarcely more united among themselves.

The second was that, for all the lofty talk, strength was what really counted. This was quickly grasped by O’Malley, who put the lesson to the test when he returned from Dublin to where he held sway as O/C of the Second Southern Division, encompassing IRA units from Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Of the five brigades under his command, four were willing to follow his lead in resisting the Treaty, which meant, in more immediate terms, his former superiors in GHQ.

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IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick, 1922

The first opportunity to make their discontent known was in Limerick in March 1922. British troops had withdrawn, as per the Treaty terms, leaving their barracks open for the taking, and O’Malley was determined that the Pro-Treatyites would not be the ones benefitting. A stand-off ensued as local IRA men from the opposing – and increasingly belligerent – factions hastened to seize and secure whatever positions they could in the city. Reinforcements came from Dublin and Clare for the Pro-Treatyites, while O’Malley was joined by Tipperary and Cork cohorts.[20]

Not even two months had passed since the Treaty was signed and the country was already on the brink of fratricide – still, better sooner than later, in O’Malley’s view.

img_2562This was the argument he put to O’Connor when O’Malley briefly returned to Dublin, but O’Connor, having been so adamant at the start, now pulled back in the eleventh hour. There was still a chance at a bloodless resolution, he told O’Malley, as he turned down the request for aid to be sent. O’Malley and his allies were on their own in Limerick, though O’Connor, rather lamely, expressed the hope that all would work out for the best.[21]

Things did – briefly.

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Richard Mulcahy

Negotiations in Limerick led to a face-saving agreement for both sides to back down with honour intact, proof that the split was reversible and conflict not inevitable. That is, until later that month, on the 22nd March, when Mulcahy announced that any IRA convention, such as the one set to take place in four days’ time on the 26th – which he had been previously agreeable towards – was “contrary to the orders of the General Headquarters staff, and will be sectional in character.” Any officer in attendance could consider themselves stripped of rank.[22]

For those who had distrusted Mulcahy and the rest of the Provisional Government from the start, this was all the vindication they needed. Just after Mulcahy’s proscription, on that same evening, Irish reporters, as well as ones in Dublin on behalf of British and American newspapers, received an invitation to a press conference in Suffolk Street.

As the Republican Party had its offices there, the pressmen who accepted might have expected the presence of someone like Éamon de Valera – no longer the President of the Republic, but still the most recognised politician in the anti-Treaty ranks. Instead, in walked a relative stranger who took his place at the large table in the centre of the room before the assembled newshounds.

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Rory O’Connor, delivering an address

Man: Gentlemen, I understand you want to know something about army matters.

Journalist: Who are you?

Man: I am Roderic O’Connor, Director of Engineering, General Headquarters.

Another journalist: Do you represent GHQ?

O’Connor: I do not represent GHQ. I represent 80 per cent of the IRA.

Not Peace But a Sword

In regards to the remaining 20 per cent, O’Connor said, when asked further, he hoped in time to win over 19 per cent. “Dáil Éireann,” he continued:

…has done an act which has no moral right to do. The Volunteers are not going into the British Empire, and stand for liberty.

This defiance on O’Connor’s part, and that of the 80 percent of the Army if he spoke true, had been some time in the making, as O’Connor went on to explain.

While the Treaty, the immoral act O’Connor had spoken of, was being debated at the start of the year, IRA officers from the South and the West of the country had come to him and Liam Mellows to say how badly they felt let down. To right this wrong, an IRA convention was set to be held four days hence, on the 26th March, and though the Provisional Government had banned it, the event would go ahead anyway.

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Attendees at the IRA Convention, the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 26th March 1922

Which was only proper, considering how:

The Army feels that the Dáil has let down the Republic and has created a dilemma for the Army and the country. The Army feels it must right itself. It has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, whilst giving its allegiance also to the Dáil.

Such a choice was no choice at all, in O’Connor’s strident view. He was, however, hazier on a number of questions put to him.

Journalist: Take it that the Irish people vote 80 per cent, or more, in favour of the policy adopted by the Dáil, will the attitude of the 80 per cent of the Army whom you claim to represent be the same towards them as you say it is now towards the Dáil?

O’Connor: I cannot answer for the Army on that. That will be a question for the new Executive which will be set up next week.

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Éamon de Valera

Journalist: Is the army going to obey Mr de Valera or the people, through those they put in control?

O’Connor: President de Valera asked that the army obey the existing GHQ, but the army for which I speak cannot, because the Minister of Defence has broken his agreement.

As for how Mulcahy, the Minister in question, had done so, O’Connor explained that it was by asking IRA members to join an alternative army, one set up for the purpose of keeping Ireland inside the British Empire. Mulcahy might deny it, but O’Connor held that it was true all the same. As for the allegiance of the IRA, that answer was obvious:

The Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.

The Dáil was certainly not such a government, at least not how O’Connor saw it. Certainly, if the Dáil was in fact the Government, then the IRA was presently in revolt against it. O’Connor’s tone was matter-of-fact, as it was when questioned further on the obvious consequences of soldiers making their own decisions.

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IRA men with rifles, in Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Journalist: Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then?

O’Connor: You can take it that way if you like.

Journalist: Then the convention won’t make for peace?

O’Connor: It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.[23]

To be continued in: Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)

References

[1] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 267-8

[2] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 131

[3] Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), pp. 79, 127

[4] Lawless, pp. 389-91

[5] Ibid, pp. 400-1

[6] Ibid, pp. 402-3, 405

[7] Ibid, p. 432

[8] Ryan, Daniel E. (BMH / WS 1673, pp. 5-10

[9] Knighty, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 16

[10] Neligan, p. 127 ; O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 131

[11] University College Dublin Archives, Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[12] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), pp. 71-3

[13] Ibid, p. 76

[14] Béaslaí, pp. 130-1

[15] Doyle, Patrick J (BMH / WS 807), pp. 21, 32-3

[16] Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[18] Ibid, pp. 65-7

[19] Ibid, pp. 67-72

[20] Ibid, pp. 72-4, 76-7

[21] Ibid, pp. 80-1

[22] Irish Times, 23/03/1922

[23] Evening Herald, 22/03/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doyle, Patrick J., WS 807, p. 33

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043

Ryan, Daniel E., WS 1673

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

Newspapers

Evening Herald

Irish Times

University College Dublin Archives

Michael Hayes Papers

Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

A continuation of: Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

An Informative Discussion

Ireland was at war and on dual fronts. The first was the official one, as part of which the country contributed men and munitions to the British campaigns in the fields of France and Flanders. But there was a second struggle, the one at home which grew in the shadows, waiting to emerge. By the start of 1918, these two theatres of war threatened to merge when the demand for extra resources on the Western Front made conscription for Ireland an attractive option for the British Government, if a very dangerous one, considering the strength of Irish feeling against such an imposition.

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An anti-conscription demonstration, 1918

Valentine Jackson was working for the Rathdown Rural District Council, Co. Dublin, when an officer from the British Army – by the rank of Major, Jackson believed – stopped by, asking to see the man responsible for the city streets. Jackson led him to the desk of Rory O’Connor, the Engineer of Paving. After O’Connor assured his caller that anything said would be in confidence, the Major explained the reason for his visit, saying that:

…there would be extensive street fighting in Dublin if conscription were enforced and that they would mainly use tanks, some of them of a heavy type, in such fighting. He wanted O’Connor to give him a list of streets which would be unsafe for the heaviest tanks, on account of sewers and other undergrounds works.

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Rory O’Connor

Playing the part of a dutiful civil servant perfectly, O’Connor asked for more information on the vehicles in question, such as their weights and load distribution, to better assess which streets would be riskiest for them. These details the Major did not know, though he promised to provide them later. The two men chatted for a while on the finer points of urban combat before the Major left, “very well pleased with the interview,” according to Jackson, who apparently had been hovering about to witness the exchange.

The Major had apparently never asked himself why a pen-pusher would know so much about street fighting, particularly where Dublin was concerned. During this same period of uncertainty, O’Connor called in on Jackson’s own office, located in the same building.

He wanted my opinion on a proposal that in the event of an attempt to enforce conscription the water supply should be cut off from all the city military establishments.

Not for nothing was Dublin Corporation viewed by the British authorities as a hotbed of sedition. While sympathetic to O’Connor’s idea, Jackson did not think it practical, explaining that the British Army would surely be competent enough to restart water pipes in the event of them being blocked or cut. Besides, fire hydrants could be used with hose-lines to provide water if necessary.

This was a setback to O’Connor, but he remained:

…anxious to consider the matter further so we spent the next few days driving around the city barracks during which he noted the size and exact position of the various branch pipes together with their valves and fittings.[1]

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Ernie O’Malley

Such contingencies proved unnecessary, for the Government thought better of the idea and cancelled its plans for conscription in Ireland. The two sides, in the form of the British state and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had narrowly avoided a bloody showdown – and bloody it would undoubtedly have been. While discussing the situation with Michael Collins, while the threat of conscription still hovered in the air, Ernie O’Malley was handed notes detailing plans for the demolition of bridges, railways and engines throughout the country, all of which were signed by O’Connor as Director of Engineering for the IRA GHQ.[2]

Later, O’Malley would meet O’Connor, as one senior IRA figure to another. Like many, he would find himself intrigued by the other man’s looks and enigmatic personality. “Rory O’Connor talked with a sense of humour; the grooves tightening his cheek muscles while his eyes smiled,” he later wrote. “He always had what I called an interior look.”[3]

Plans for Plans

To O’Connor, the end of conscription as a potential flashpoint was but a delay in the conflict he had been working towards, even before the Easter Rising of 1916 had transmogrified the Irish public mood. The anxious peace that had settled over the country could not last indefinitely and, when the storm at last broke out, O’Connor and his comrades would be armed and ready.

At least, in theory.

If the British authorities were often woefully blind to the insurgency brewing right beneath their noses – as in the case of the Major discussing strategy with a disingenuously helpful clerk – then the rebel underground only reached a state of readiness through slow trial and painful error. In early 1920, O’Connor came to Jackson with another request: could he find a quiet place out of town in which to test some explosives recently raided from a British Army depot?

In response:

I selected a site by the east side of the Upper Reservoir at Roundwood then under construction, but on which work was suspended. The site was Corporation property, well away from any habitation and contained a couple of derelict houses.

Jackson joined O’Connor in testing out the pilfered goods. As no one came to investigate the six or seven blasts, he had evidently chosen the spot well. The same could not be said for the explosives, being of poor quality as they were. “O’Connor was disappointed,” Jackson later wrote. “He attributed the result to deterioration of the material.”[4]

Still, one step at a time. Even if munitions were not easy to come by, then the IRA at least had an organisation structure to build on. Part of this was its Engineering Department, formed in the autumn of 1917 by O’Connor, and consisting of men with similarly technical minds. One of whom was Jack Plunkett, brother of the late 1916 Signatory, and a long-time friend of O’Connor. Together they pored over a large Ordinance Survey map of Ireland, plotting out the best methods of attack, with a particular emphasis on the railways lines that the British Army often used. These plans “Rory and I practically laid out alone,” according to Plunkett.

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Jack Plunkett

Even many years later, the memories of the time the two men spent together in shared enterprise could move him. “I would like to say a good deal about Rory but it hurts too much.”[5]

The 5th Battalion

Another team member was Liam Archer. Like O’Connor and Plunkett, he had been ‘out’ in Easter Week, and continued on in the IRA as a signal officer for the Dublin Brigade. Two years after the Rising:

When conscription was threatened in 1918 I was transferred to the staff of Rory O’Connor who had, I think, shortly before been made Director of Engineering. It was decided to organise a Company of Engineers under direct control of GHQ with the special mission of carrying out extensive sabotage of communications in the event of conscription being imposed.

From this, the 5th Dublin Battalion, or the Engineering Corps, was formed. While initially a Dublin matter, a two week-long course was set up for budding engineers from other IRA units in the country, with O’Connor, Plunkett and Archer acting as lecturers. “In time, we developed training in the use of explosives and demolition of rails and bridges and the mining of roads,” Archer recalled.

The shelving of conscription did nothing to change the IRA agenda: to fight British rule with every tool at hand. As this struggle intensified in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, O’Connor issued a prohibition against members of the 5th Battalion partaking in raids, ambushes or other standard IRA missions, however keen they were to do so. Such men were specialists, O’Connor ruled, and so were not to risk themselves in operations that ‘foot soldiers’ could do.

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Irish Volunteers/IRA

The commanders of the other four Dublin battalions did not disagree, as Archer described:

They considered, first, that the opportunities for such should be the preference of their units and, second, that it would be impossible for them that the 5th Battalion was carrying out, or had carried out, an operation in their areas, and that this fact could gravely endanger the success of their operations, and the safety of their personnel.

By keeping the 5th Battalion removed from the others, it was hoped that they would avoid getting their wires crossed. Even after O’Connor was promoted to another command and this prohibition of his officially lifted, the engineers of the 5th Battalion were only used when their particular skills were necessary.[6]

Life was becoming risky enough as it was.

Prison Plans

There was no formal declaration of war, no grand gesture, no Pearl Harbour or Fort Sumter or Gulf of Tonkin. Historians were to point to the Soloheadbeg Ambush in January 1919 as the trigger but that was merely the first in a series of incidents that slowly proliferated into a full-blown insurgency. Until then, the various IRA units limited their operations to one-offs, designed for a specific goal rather than the big picture.

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IRA Flying Column

In March 1919, Michael Lynch, O/C of the Fingal Brigade, answered the summons to the Dublin IRA headquarters at Gardiner Street, where O’Connor inquired about the amount of ‘gun cotton’ available. When Lynch asked him what for:

Rory informed me that the idea underlying his request was the blowing down of the boundary wall of Mountjoy Prison, in order to effect the release of some of our men, whose presence was vital to us in our organisation scheme and who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in Mountjoy.

While Lynch had access to some such ‘gun cotton’, he was horrified at how much O’Connor wanted. “My God, man,” he said, “if you use that, you kill every prisoner in Mountjoy!”

All the amount needed was five to ten pounds, insisted Lynch. As an avid reader of the American Scientific Supplement, Lynch considered himself an expert on the matter. So did O’Connor, who insisted on the original figure stated. When the two men could not agree, the explosives notion was dropped. If Lynch was correct in his fears, then the Mountjoy residents were luckier than they could have known.

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Robert Barton

Others present at the meeting chipped in with their own ideas, the best being to waylay the van transporting the prisoner in mind – Robert Barton – to Dublin Castle for interrogation. As they had inside knowledge of this, the IRA men were able to plan for when and where: the van moving down Berkeley Road, to be blocked by a handcart with a forty-foot-long ladder fixed across, allowing those on standby to rush in.

When the day came, all worked as it should – save for one small snag.

“Barton was not in it,” Lynch recalled. “We indulged in a fair amount of bad language at our ill luck.”

Shortly afterwards, O’Connor met with Lynch again, showing him the letter from Barton that had been smuggled out. To O’Connor’s dismay, the prisoner was insisting that he escape on a certain date, which just happened to be a night of a full moon. Having already filed through the bars of his cell-door, Barton would make his way to the yard and then throw a handkerchief-wrapped brick over the outer wall to let the others know where he was.

From there, they were to help him over and out – easier said than done, as O’Connor griped.

Nonetheless, an opportunity was an opportunity.[7]

Breathless

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Peadar Clancy

On the 16th March 1919, the team of men from Dublin’s G Company gathered for their briefing by Peadar Clancy, their commanding officer, and O’Connor. The mission was drawn out on a blackboard as each participant was allocated his position on the Canal Bank, near the north-west corner of Mountjoy Prison. Some were to wait by the wall, hugging the shadows, while others paced the canal, batons in hand, in case any policemen came their way.

“Each man knew what was expected,” described Patrick J. Kelly, one of the group, “and the risk of a slip up on the part of anyone.”

At the chime of midnight, a rope-ladder was tossed up to the top of the wall. After all the talk of explosions and the drama of an open-air hijack, Barton’s liberation was to come by relatively simple means – that is, if all went as it should.

The first throw of the ladder failed to clear the twenty-foot height of the wall. The second succeeded and the man who had cast it waited with his hands on his end to steady the prisoner’s climb on the other side. However, as Kelly watched:

No strain came on the rope and we thought the plan on the inside had miscarried. We were wondering what to do next when a small stone was thrown over from the inside to let us know he was there and that something was amiss.

The other man shifted the rope-ladder into a better position, allowing Barton to make the climb to the top of the wall, from where he jumped down into the blanket outstretched for him by several of the others.

Unfortunately:

His weight was too much for the men holding it and he had a bad bump on the ground but escaped injury, and was soon on his way to the waiting car with Rory and Peadar.

O’Connor and Barton sat in the back, while Kelly got in besides the driver. With revolvers kept ready in the event of being pulled over by the police, the men drove through the darkened city to Donnybrook. O’Connor and Barton disembarked at Herbert Park and thanked the other two before walking out into the night.

The Irish revolution had scored a coup as “Bob Barton…was considered a very important man in the movement,” according to Kelly. Afterwards “it was very interesting to read the papers next day with their accounts of the escape and their theories as to the way it was managed.”[8]

One of the newspapers in question, the Evening Herald, was helped by how one of its staff, Michal Knightly, doubled as an IRA intelligence officer. O’Connor visited him in his office immediately after Barton’s flight, fully aware of its propaganda value. He was so breathless with excitement that Knightly had to wait while O’Connor rested in a chair before providing the scoop.[9]

Barton would later go on to put his name to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, more than two years later, in December 1921. Whether O’Connor would have been so keen to spring him had he known…but that is a different story.

Mountjoy Sensation

For the moment, the only story that mattered was the one Knightly had obligingly emblazoned in the papers of the Evening Herald:

THE SENSATION!

MR. R.C. BARTON. M.P., MISSING FROM MOUNTJOY

A POLITE LETTER

The last line was a reference to Barton’s cheeky parting-shot to his gaolers, a left-behind note in the style of a disappointed hotel guest: since he was leaving due to the discomfort of his accommodation, could his baggage be kept safe until sent for?[10]

Showing an evident delight at official discomfort, Knightly reported how:

The prison authorities…are “out of their minds over the whole affair,” and “at their wits’ ends” to know how the prisoner escaped.”[11]

Thirteen days later, the Evening Herald would have a similar story to tell. Like every good sequel, this one was bigger and more dramatic than before:

MOUNTJOY SENSATION

20 SINN FEIN PRISONERS ESCAPE

If the secrets behind Barton’s flight had remained as such, then the prison-break on the 29th March 1919, conducted brazenly in broad daylight, was anything but a mystery:

It appears that some of their number suddenly turned on the wardens who were in charge of them, and held them down while their comrades were arranging a rope ladder over a thirty-foot wall…the first thing the outside public noticed was the extraordinary spectacle of men sliding down a rope from the top of the jail wall to the canal bank.[12]

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Dick McKee

“The escape exceeded our most sanguine expectations,” recalled one of the escapees, Piaras Béaslaí, who credited O’Connor and Dick McKee, the O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade, with the planning of the feat. But it had initially been touch and go, when a sudden snowstorm almost cancelled the daily allotment of recreation outside in the yard. Thankfully, the weather cleared in time for exercise-hour to go ahead at 3 pm.

A prisoner signalled from a window to the IRA watchman on Claude Road that the escapees-to-be were in place. When a whistle was sounded from the outside, the prisoners dashed for the designated part of the wall, while a rope-ladder appeared at the top and came down for them to climb. Once outside, the freed men ran along the canal bank to where a rescue party were waiting with bicycles to take them into town, where they were practically home safe, according to Béaslaí:

The moment they got out in the streets among the people they were made safe, for everybody befriended them. Such was the famous daylight escape from Mountjoy, which seemed the culmination of a series of bloodless triumphs for the Irish Volunteers.[13]

“How the ladder came to be fastened is a mystery,” added the Evening Herald. If the item in question was the hero of the hour, then it was also the sole casualty, being found discarded next to the canal. “It is now in the hands of the authorities.”[14]

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Mountjoy Prison

O/C Escapes

Replacing the lost item became a priority, for there were other Irishmen languishing in captivity as political prisoners, among being Béaslaí again, who did not enjoy his liberty for long before being rearrested while cycling in Finglas village. The prison authorities learnt their lesson by transferring Béaslaí out of Ireland and to Strangeways, Manchester, to deter any further escapes. Béaslaí was not cowed, instead remaining in surreptitious contact with Michael Collins, the two engaging in a long-distance discourse on the best way to spring Béaslaí once more.[15]

austin_stackTo this end, Collins dispatched O’Connor to England. A coded letter to Austin Stack, another inmate in Strangeways, was signed from his “loving cousin Maud”, assuring him that “we are all busy preparing for the examination. Professor Rory has arrived. He is a very nice man.”[16]

Even if the past two rescues had been roaring successes – save for Barton’s spectacles, which had fallen off as he cleared the wall – those responsible were not going to rest on their laurels. As a process, prison-breaking would be inspected, improved and, as much as possible, perfected.

O’Connor relished the challenge. Dubbed the ‘O/C. Escapes’ by Jack Plunkett, he “frequently talked to me about it and he got not only pleasure but amusement out of it.”

A replacement ladder was procured, after first being tested for the lightness of its rope, balanced with weights at the end. In delegating Plunkett for such work:

Rory, while being extremely reticent, gave me all the information I needed to obtain the necessary material and as was the habit in those times, I always refrained from asking unnecessary questions.

These tight lips earned the respect of another consummate professional. “I notice your staff don’t ask any questions,” Dick McKee told O’Connor approvingly.

Strangeways

By the end of his investigation, Plunkett could provide a finished product that, while formidable, presented a practical challenge:

The Strangeways rope-ladder was very bulky, as it had wooden rings and two pairs of restraining ropes, one pair outside and one pair inside the wall, and it had to be carried through Manchester on a handcart with a piece of sacking thrown over it.[17]

The first date for the rescue, the 11th October 1919, was postponed when the ladder in question did not arrive in time. A message hidden in a pot of jam to Strangeways alerted the Irish captives that the next attempt was to be on the 25th.

As with Mountjoy, the rescue team selected a particular section of the wall, this one being next to a street with no houses and thus less civilians to get in the way. All the same, members of the Manchester IRA company, formed from Irish émigrés in the city who were willing to do their part for the cause, stood at either end to block it off, while two more paced the wall, disguised as window-cleaners.

“When everything was in readiness,” described Patrick O’Donoghue, the Manchester O/C, “Rory O’Connor blew a whistle which was the pre-arranged signal and this signal was answered from inside by one of the prisoners.”

The new, improved rope-ladder was thrown up but failed to fall down low enough on the other side for the inmates to reach. Two more attempts were made to no avail and, just when all looked lost, Peadar Clancy – who had also come over from Dublin – quickly placed an extension ladder against the wall and climbed to shift the rope one into place:

When this was done Austin Stack was the first man to come over the wall in safety. Béaslaí was next and he got stuck against the wall half way up because his other escaping comrades were trying to use the rope at the same time as he was endeavouring to make the ascent. It was realised that only one man could climb the rope at a time.[18]

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Piaras Béaslaí

Six men altogether got over, including Stack and Béaslaí, though the latter did not find it as easy as the last occasion, cutting his hand to the bone on the rope as he slid down. A waiting taxi took him and the other five to a safe-house, where they stayed for a week before he and Stack were taken by train to Liverpool, and from there to Dublin.

A friendly crewman allowed the pair to bunk inside his ship’s forecastles. “The other sailors showed no curiosity; they were used to such smugglings,” Béaslaí noted. After they disembarked at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in the morning, they were informed by the driver sent to meet them, Joe O’Reilly – one of Collins’ ‘Squad’ – about how a police detective had been shot and wounded the previous night in St Stephen’s Green.[19]

There was, after all, a war still one, one that was creeping further and further into the open.

Narrow Disaster

‘Bloodless triumphs’, Béaslaí had called these kind of daring exploits, but that was not a state that could last for long. One Sunday morning, in September 1920, the Engineering Department arranged for a demonstration of their work on the Kilmashogue Mountain. The night before and again on the morning, Plunkett received word that the British were aware of their planned activities. Though he passed the warning on to O’Connor, the session went ahead anyway.

Kilmashogue Mountain
Kilmashogue Mountain

On the mountainside, the men exploded several small charges. As well as O’Connor and Plunkett, Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, was present, along with Archer and several others. More participants had been expected, including two companies’ worth of men from the 5th Battalion. When some time had passed and those absent were still nowhere to be seen, the rest decided to proceed anyway, detonating about eight or nine bombs.

“Between two of these explosions we heard quite a fusillade of shots and later on several more which we found difficult to account for,” Plunkett remembered.

Despite the prior warnings, the men failed to put two and two together, and did nothing more than send out one of their number downhill to investigate before continuing. The engineers got a little too involved in their work, and disaster was narrowly averted when, according to Plunkett:

…one of the charges which had a large stone on top of it, was fired, the stone went straight up in the air and came down almost on the spot where one man, who had stood too close, had thrown himself down with the fright.

So near to him was the stone when it fell that I was able to touch it and the man’s leg with one hand. The stone which weighed about 30 lbs. was almost completely buried in the earth. No one was hurt.

When the first runner did not come back, a second was dispatched after him – and quickly returned with urgent news.

Blood on the Mountain

The missing two companies had drawn up next to St Columba’s College, the agreed rendezvous point on the mountain, and the forty or so men were about to set off uphill to join the others when they were ambushed by a large number of Auxiliaries, the militarised branch of the RIC which the British Government had formed in response to an increasingly defiant Ireland.

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Auxiliaries on the prowl

They had been hiding on the grounds of St Columba’s College the night before, taking care to detain passers-by who might warn their targets. The unsuspecting IRA men were caught entirely off-guard when armed foes emerged from behind the walls of the college, demanding for them to put their hands up.

“I should mention that this was the very first operation carried out in Ireland by the Auxiliaries,” wrote Plunkett.

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Seán Doyle

The remaining IRA men uphill promptly fled, with O’Connor and Mulcahy going in one direction, and Plunkett and Archer taking another. The Auxiliaries had already departed, taking with them the Irishmen they had caught as prisoners – save one. Plunkett and Archer came across a body on the mountainside. Seán Doyle had reached for the grenade in his pocket, only to be shot down by the Auxiliaries.

“The man’s shirt was completely soaked in blood,” Plunkett described. He did not recognise the corpse and so turned to his companion. “I asked Liam Archer to have a look at him and was quite disgusted that he wouldn’t.”[20]

Archer made no mention of that particular detail in his own account. To him, the day “was a lesson never to discount local knowledge,” as the warnings that morning about an enemy presence had been inexplicably ignored. It was a rude reminder to O’Connor and his colleagues that their war had a steep and unforgiving learning curve.[21]

fb_img_1490720457042A month later, in October 1920, O’Connor, McKee, Mulcahy, Collins and Oscar Traynor met in Gardiner’s Place, Dublin, to discuss the plight of the latest prisoner in need of rescue. Time was of the essence, as Kevin Barry was due to hang for his part in an ambush on British troops, and O’Connor resurfaced his idea of blowing a hole through the wall of Mountjoy in order to allow IRA men to rush in.

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Kevin Barry

Whether this would have led to the disaster Michael Lynch feared remains unknown. The plan proceeded far enough for men from the Dublin Brigade to get into position outside Mountjoy, in anticipation for the explosion, only for it to be cancelled for fear that the wardens would kill Barry rather than let him go.[22]

As if to signal the end of an era, Barry’s sentence went ahead and he was hanged on the 1st November 1920, the first such political execution since the Easter Rising. The days of thumbing the nose at hapless wardens seemed over, as the war for Irish independence entered a darker, less forgiving stage.

Eye for an Eye

Faced with this increased pressure, the IRA redoubled its efforts, outside Ireland as well as in. “Wholesale burnings were then taking place in Ireland,” as described by Michael O’Leary, “so that I am sure reprisals in England of a similar nature at this time would be considered very appropriate, as we believed ‘an eye for an eye’.”

As part of the Liverpool IRA Company, O’Leary was ideally placed for this sort of asymmetrical warfare. Paraffin oil, waste cotton-rags and other materials for lighting fires were gathered, the targets being the cotton warehouses and timber yards in the city. The men involved were summoned to Joseph’s Hall on Scotland Road, where they met O’Connor, whose duties once again involved sabotage, only this time on enemy soil and not just in Liverpool, but Manchester and London as well, so O’Connor informed them.

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Scotland Road, Liverpool

Clearly, the IRA GHQ was taking these overseas operations to heart, and O’Conor, having operated in England before, was the obvious choice to direct this latest theatre of the war. Gratified at the willingness of the men before him, O’Connor said he was off to Manchester but would return to see them in time for their mission to commence.

This he did so on the 26th November 1920, the day before the due date, and asked if there were any questions. O’Leary had one:

I asked him what would be our position after the fires, or how we were to act. He replied, “Keep quiet for a fortnight and repeat similar operations.”

O’Leary did not think this feasible. After all, most of them were already known to the authorities for their subversive activities and would surely be arrested before the two weeks passed. Instead, O’Leary wanted the Company to start anew immediately after the first attack, on the following morning, and begin a fresh wave of fires, this time against the shops in the city centre, and then moving on to the outskirts until finally brought low.

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IRA men

O’Connor turned down this suggestion, either because he did not wish to condone suicide and the waste of manpower or that he believed the men would still be at liberty after the fortnight for the second set of burnings as originally envisioned. O’Leary was not convinced but went ahead with the rest of the Company that night, on the 27th November.

He was gratified at how not a single man was absent when they assembled, before setting forth in teams of three to six towards their assigned targets. O’Leary was to be even more thrilled at their success and speed:

In less than 5 minutes a line of fire, 8 miles in length, from Seaforth to Gaston was started, resulting in the complete destruction of 14 cotton warehouses and 4 large timber yards.

The only failure was that of O’Leary and his group, being interrupted as they prepared the oil-soaked rags with which to burn down their allocated warehouse. O’Leary fired his revolver as two policemen wrestled with the man on watch, wounding one in the shoulder. Having gained the upper hand, he forced the pair against a wall and took aim, only for his gun to jam. The IRA men now fled into the night-time mist, with the shrill blasts of whistles behind them.[23]

Leaving a Legacy

O’Connor learnt about the success of the Liverpool mission while in Newcastle; at least, according to Liam McMahon, who had accompanied him from Dublin to help set up a Newcastle IRA company. The pair were watching a cinema newsreel when Liverpool came up, much to O’Connor’s approval. “Well, that is something,” he said to McMahon. “I hope Manchester will do as well.”[24]

O’Leary told a different version as, in his account, he reported straight to O’Connor, waiting in Joseph’s Hall, after escaping from the warehouse he had failed to destroy. O’Leary then took the morning train to Manchester. O’Connor could plan ahead all he wanted, but O’Leary knew Liverpool would be too dangerous for him now. As he had predicted, a wave of arrests followed, including his own, despite his efforts to put distance between himself and the scene of the crime.[25]

O’Leary could take comfort in how his troubles had not been in vain. “It is impossible to estimate the damage at the various fires, but a rough computation puts it at over a quarter of a million,” reported the news about Liverpool.

In addition, Daniel Ward, a 19-year-old labourer, had been killed that night after alerting some policemen to the four suspicious-looking men loitering in the doorway of a warehouse. In the resulting struggle, one of the men fired a revolver, hitting Ward with fatal results. This account matches O’Leary’s own in a number of details, but whether that is coincidental or if O’Leary omitted the blood on his hands when relaying his story years later is another of the period’s many unanswered questions.

Similar mass burnings had been intended to take place simultaneously in London and Manchester, but these proved to be damp squibs. On the same night as the Liverpool fires, police intercepted a band of men off White Cross Street, Aldersgate, London, outside a timber store. The cotton waste, scrap paper and paraffin they had on them would suggest identical intentions as in Liverpool, as would the gun they brandished at the policemen. Otherwise, London remained untroubled by the end of the 27th November.[26]

Manchester, likewise, had been underwhelming in performance, as few of the IRA there had been quite as keen as their Liverpudlian counterparts to undertake such a mission. “Rory O’Connor afterwards told me that he was very disappointed,” O’Leary recalled.[27]

Patrick O’Donoghue, as captain of the Manchester Company, would admit this inactivity on his men’s part, explaining that:

It was felt that our units were not sufficiently organised to carry out the destruction of warehouses on a large scale.[28]

seanrussellDespite this mixed success, O’Connor’s campaign of arson in Britain would live on in Republican memory. Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1938, two IRA veterans from the War of Independence, Seán Russell and Maurice Twomey, were sitting on the grounds of the Spa Hotel, New York, when the former reminisced about the damage O’Connor had helped inflict on the enemy homeland. Twomey was sceptical as to how useful this history lesson could be to them now but, to Russell, the late O’Connor had written the guidebook for his own bombing operation, to be undertaken in the following year.[29]

To be continued in: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)

References

[1] Jackson, Valentine (BMH / WS 409), pp. 30-1

[2] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 95-6

[3] Ibid, p. 170

[4] Jackson, pp. 31-2

[5] Plunkett, Jack (BMH / WS 865), pp. 15-6

[6] Archer, Liam (BMH / WS 819), pp. 13-5

[7] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), pp. 160-2

[8] Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 50-3

[9] Knightly, Michael (BMH / WS 834), p. 13

[10] Evening Herald, 17/03/1919

[11] Ibid, 18/03/1919

[12] Ibid, 29/03/1919

[13] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), pp. 188, 190

[14] Evening Herald, 29/03/1919

[15] Béaslaí, p. 199

[16] Ibid, p. 233

[17] Plunkett, pp. 43-5

[18] O’Donoghue, Patrick (BMH / WS 847), pp. 9-10

[19] Béaslaí, pp. 239-40

[20] Plunkett, pp. 32-4

[21] Archer, p. 18

[22] Traynor, Oscar (BMH / WS 340), pp. 49-51

[23] O’Leary, Michael (BMH / WS 797), pp. 43-6

[24] McMahon, Liam (BMH / WS274), 22

[25] O’Leary, pp. 46-7

[26] Irish Times, 29/11/1920

[27] O’Leary, p. 47

[28] O’Donoghue, p. 13

[29] MacEoin, Uiseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 397

Bibliography

Books

Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)

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

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

Newspapers

Evening Herald

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Archer, Liam, WS 819

Jackson, Valentine, WS 409

Kelly, Patrick, J., WS 781

Knightly, Michael, WS 834

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McMahon, Liam, WS 274

O’Donoghue, Patrick, WS 847

O’Leary, Michael, WS 797

Plunkett, Jack, WS 865

Traynor, Oscar, WS 340

Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

A Close Shave

Something was up – Lieutenant Laurence Nugent knew that at least. After all, his superior officer, Captain T.J. Cullen, had received word, in the lead-up to the Easter Week of 1916, to ready their men in preparation for a freight of rifles that was said to be on its way to Ireland.

Nugent and Cullen were in something of an odd position. When the Irish Volunteers split almost two years previously, in September 1914, both had elected to go with the majority and form the National Volunteers. But, though training continued as before, the old spark was lost. Members began dropping out of the ranks, never to return.

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A parade of the National Volunteers, with John Redmond (left, holding flag)

When Éamonn Ceannt addressed a Dublin parade of the National Volunteers in August 1915 on behalf of the rival Irish Volunteers, both Cullen and Nugent were receptive to a possible change to their stupefying pace. There was the chance of a shipment of guns and ammunition into the country, Ceannt confided, too large for his organisation to handle alone. Would the National Volunteers be interested in taking part in any action – and probably soon – for the freedom of Ireland?

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Éamonn Ceannt

Every man present agreed and, from then on, the National Volunteers in Dublin could train with a goal in mind. But, by the end of the week before that of Easter 1916, news filtered down that the promised rifles were not coming after all. Orders for an uprising were cancelled, and that appeared to be that.

Nugent was on his way to work on Easter Tuesday when he chanced upon a group of women and children watching from the top of a street leading to St Stephen’s Green, where a man – so Nugent was told – lay dead inside the park railings. Nugent pressed forward to see for himself and was ordered back by the British soldiers who were occupying the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the park. Bullets were whining through the air, and Nugent tried warning the onlookers about the danger, but they paid him no attention, seeming more curious than concerned about the battle unfolding in their city.

hp_16Nugent seems to have been equally blasé in his own way, for he continued on to his shop at 9 Lower Baggot Street. When Captain Cullen came in with another man who was – incongruously enough – carrying half a ham and some mutton, Nugent sent them upstairs, out of sight from his customers, for he recognised Cullen’s companion as Rory O’Connor, a leading figure in the Irish Volunteers.

“That was a close shave,” said Cullen, taking off O’Connor’s hat. As Nugent examined the hat, he found it had been holed through on either side. Looking at its owner, he saw a burnt break in O’Connor’s thick black hair, made by, say, a passing bullet.[1]

Roderic Ignatius Patrick O’Connor

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Rory O’Connor

In the years to come, O’Connor was to leave a striking impression on many who had known him. “He was a smallish, very dark man, dark skin, blue jaws,” remembered Geraldine Dillon (née Plunkett), “he had to shave twice a day and had such a deep voice that it seemed to slow his speech, yet he had great charm.” This charisma worked itself on her brothers, George and Jack, both of whom followed him unquestioningly.[2]

Another Plunkett sibling on close terms with O’Connor was Joseph. For someone like O’Connor, looking to strike a blow for Irish freedom, this connection meant a lot, for Joseph Plunkett sat on the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The family property at Larkfield, Co. Dublin, became the base for the growing number of young Irishmen united in their desire to overthrow British rule in Ireland.

As part of this, O’Connor worked with George and Jack on their brother’s staff, along with Michael Collins – another rising star in the revolutionary underground – and Tommy Dillon, Geraldine’s future husband. O’Connor was put in charge of engineering, a role which suited his talents.[3]

He had worked on the engineering staff of the then Midland Great Western Railway in Ireland, before emigrating to Canada in 1910. There, he had been employed in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad, according to the estimations of his brother, Norbert.

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Canadian Northern Railway under construction

In 1915, O’Connor returned to Ireland. His closeness to the Plunketts was such that Norbert believed he had come back “at the request of Joseph Plunkett.”[4]

Making Contacts

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John Redmond

Having said that, there is not much to indicate that O’Connor even knew Joseph Plunkett at that stage. Also, his motive for returning seems to have been not for any brewing rebellion but instead to fight for King and Country in the Great War – an odd desire for a budding Fenian. Inspiration came from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in order to secure favourable terms for Home Rule, though O’Connor did not intend to go quite as far as joining the British Army, preferring instead a different military that was on the same side. He told Dillon:

…that he was responding to Redmond’s call and that a Colonel…had promised to get him a comission [sic] in the Engineering Corp of the Canadian army. I told him to take his time and explained the situation to him. I brought him out to Larkfield and he soon gave up on the idea of joining the British forces.[5]

O’Connor and Dillon had known each before as school chums at Clongowes Wood. They met again when Dillon came to study in Dublin in 1905, and O’Connor, recognising a kindred spirit, introduced him to the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a grassroots movement for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).[6]

Both joined the committee, as did Patrick J. Little, a future government minister, who accredited O’Connor with being one of the driving forces in a “remarkably clever and interesting” body of young men, consisting mostly of students and professionals, who wanted a voice in how their country should be run.

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Joe Devlin

Young Ireland proved a touch too radical for the IPP grandees, one of whom, Joe Devlin, tried to persuade them, sometime in 1905 or 1906, to take a less strident approach. He failed, but the divergent opinions on board the committee proved too fractious and the group broke up in 1915, while O’Connor was still working in Canada.

Shortly after his homecoming, and diverted from his original idea of enlisting, O’Connor went into business with Dillon, setting up together the Larkfield Chemical Company, the intent being to produce aspirins. From the outset, they ran into difficulties with the authorities, against which they hired their old Young Ireland colleague, Little, as a solicitor. As Little described:

We floated the company, in spite of a refusal to allow us to do so, under a regulation of D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act). On the legal advice of my brother, Edward, I found that D.O.R.A. did not prevail over an Act of Parliament and proceeded to float our company.

Complications continued when machinery purchased from Glasgow arrived defective. The offending suppliers were taken to court and the suit settled for £2,000.[7]

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Tommy Dillon (centre), with Rory O’Connor (right) and an unidentified third man (left)

In any case, O’Connor and Dillon, with the assistance of the Plunketts, on whose property in Larkfield they worked, had become more interested in fermenting rebellion than curing headaches, having learnt of the IRB plans for an armed uprising. At one war council, O’Connor said to those present: “Do you realise what this effort is going to cost in blood? But, if you decide on fighting, I am with you.”

At least, that is what he later told Nugent. It is unlikely, however, he would have been inducted into such a conspiracy if the others were not already certain of his commitment. Previous rebellions had been thwarted in no small part by their carelessness with information. This time, the Military Council would hide its secrets well – perhaps a little too much so.[8]

The Castle Document

Among O’Connor’s responsibilities was the printing of the ‘Castle Document’ with the assistance of George Plunkett. The Military Council, including its de facto leader Tom Clarke, had met previously at Larkfield, in the bedroom of the sickly Joseph, to discuss the document, purportedly smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a sympathetic clerk, which detailed the authorities’ plans to move against the Irish Volunteers as well as a number of other suspect bodies in Ireland.

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Colm Ó Lochlainn

Its credibility would be a matter of controversy. Geraldine was sure it was genuine, but Colm Ó Lochlainn, its original printer before O’Connor and George took over, assumed it a forgery on account of it being in Joseph’s handwriting. Regardless of authenticity, printing the piece proved boring work. O’Connor and George sung together to get through the tedium, even resorting to God Save the King as well as the more expected fare such as The Croppy Boy and I Tread the Ground That Felons Tread. When halfway done, one of them knocked the ink over with an elbow and the work had to be started all over again.

More problems arose. When the finished product was sent out to the newspapers, none would accept it as real. Instead, O’Connor brought a copy to the New Ireland, a weekly newspaper with modest circulation, whose proprietor and editor was none other than Little. After acquiring it in February 1916, Little had assured O’Connor that he would publish anything if it served the cause of Ireland. He was as good as his word, though it was only when the ‘Castle Document’ was read out at the Dublin Corporation meeting on the 19th April 1916 that it finally achieved some proper publicity.

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The Castle Document

The intent behind it had been two-fold, as Geraldine explained:  “Make the Castle hesitate to do the things they were accused of planning, and make the public realise what was planned whether there was a Rising or not.”[9]

Last Minute Plans

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Eoin MacNeill

‘Whether or not’ would become a pressing issue when, after months of preparation, the Irish Volunteers were confronted by the one thing the conspirators had failed to account for: dissension in their own ranks. Suspicious of the activities of the IRB, to which he was not affiliated, Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff, had abruptly countermanded the parade for Easter Sunday that was to provide cover for the Rising, effectively putting the insurrection on hold.

If the IRB had assumed MacNeill would be a compliant figurehead, then they gravely misjudged him. Faced with this unexpected setback, Geraldine assumed that the event would be postponed for a week, possibly longer, until the swirl of rumours obscuring everything had been cleared. She had her own investment in it – she and Dillon were due to be married on Easter Sunday in a double wedding with Joseph and his own fiancé, Grace Gifford.

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Joseph Plunkett

Geraldine and Dillon visited Joseph on Saturday in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, where he had checked in the day before, his luggage carried by Michael Collins as his aide-de-camp. Using his suite as a temporary base of operations, Joseph met with a succession of people until he could spare an hour for his sister and brother-in-law-to-be.

Joseph’s instructions to Dillon were to go to the Imperial Hotel on the same street and wait for news. In the event of activity, Dillon was to take over the chemical factory in Larkfield and set to work alongside O’Connor in making munitions. That is, if anything happened – Joseph was as unsure on that point as anyone since MacNeill’s intervention had thrown everything and everyone into disarray.[10]

Joseph had no time to get married, but Geraldine and Dillon still could. With the Rising due either Sunday or Monday, at least as far as Geraldine understood, she insisted the ceremony be on the earlier date – with the world about to be upturned, she knew she had to carpe diem. Besides, she had had enough of living with her harridan of a mother and grasped at any chance to escape the suffocating confines of her family life.

The wedding was held accordingly in Rathmines Church, attended by George and Jack, both in the green uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with O’Connor, in civilian clothes, acting as best man. His duties included the ejection, helped by the Plunkett brothers, of two police detectives who tried to intrude.

Afterwards, the newly-weds cycled to the Imperial Hotel as per instruction. O’Connor came with the news that MacNeill’s countermand had been published in the Sunday Independent, making it definite. As far as O’Connor could say, the Rising was definitely off for the rest of Sunday but Monday remained an open question. Still, the new Mr and Mrs Dillon should remain on the alert, at least from noon the next day.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sackville Street, Dublin

If anything was to happen, O’Connor told them, it would be then.

Easter Monday

The couple were seated by their open second-storey window, looking out on to Sackville Street when the big question was finally answered by the column of uniformed Irish Volunteers marching towards the General Post Office (GPO), where they halted. As the Imperial Hotel stood directly opposite the GPO, the couple had a front-row view of the men wheeling left and continuing into the post office. Geraldine caught sight of Joseph, with Collins beside him, and a number of the other leaders, such as Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada.

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General Post Office, Dublin

There was a bang and Geraldine saw someone being carried away on a stretcher. When O’Connor came by their room shortly afterwards, he explained that one of the Irish Volunteers had slipped when entering the GPO, setting off the bomb in his hand.

Other than that, the long-gestating Rising was unfolding smoothly enough. With the GPO established as their headquarters, Volunteers began bringing in supplies and smashing windows with rifle-butts to make room for barricades. Geraldine asked O’Connor to tell Joseph to let her help, but when he returned to the Hotel at 6 pm, the answer he brought back was ‘no’. The GPO was too crowded, O’Connor explained.

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Geraldine Plunkett

Instead, Joseph’s instructions were for her and Dillon to return to Larkfield with O’Connor and, if possible, manufacture some more explosives (Geraldine had already beheld the prowess of a Larkfield-made bomb when one was used to mangle an empty tramcar on Sackville Street for use in a barricade). To avoid British patrols on the way, it was agreed for O’Connor to take a different route to Geraldine and Dillon. He would try to reach his father’s residence in Monkstown, while the other two headed to Rathmines where the Plunketts owned another house, and the next day they would reconvene in Larkfield.

Night was falling and the street lights flickered on to guide the newly-weds as they cycled over O’Connell Bridge, encountering almost no one else along the way. The streets were devoid of people, whether civilians or military, and Geraldine could take satisfaction at least that the Rising, after all the effort and trouble to bring about, had taken everyone, the authorities especially, completely by surprise.

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Tommy Dillon

At Larkfield, the trio reunited as planned on Tuesday morning. O’Connor had first checked in at the GPO, and assured Geraldine and Dillon that Joseph was well. As the assigned chemical expert on the Plunkett staff, Dillon began making production plans as per Joseph’s orders, but O’Connor stopped him, saying that the situation had moved past that.

The Rising, it seemed, was not going as smoothly as hoped.

When Dillon wondered if it would be any use going to the GPO, O’Connor again demurred, repeating Joseph’s line that the building was packed enough as it was. For want of anything else to do, O’Connor decided he would take messages in and out of the GPO and other parts of the city, a risky endeavour considering the fighting that was about to be waged. It was while doing this that O’Connor, after narrowly avoiding a bullet to the head, met Cullen, who took him to Nugent’s shop in Baggot Street.[11]

Something to Do

There, O’Connor did not mince words. “He told us the whole position and it was hopeless,” Nugent remembered.

As O’Connor explained, much of their ammunition had already been spent and the remainder would not last for more than a few days. Joseph Plunkett was confident that their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ would come to their rescue, having been to Germany beforehand and heard the promises of a military landing, but no one else in the GPO was putting much stock in this possibility.

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Sir James Gallagher

O’Connor begged the two National Volunteers to do everything in their power to effect a ceasefire of some kind. The duo were as good as their word, as they gathered a small delegation of fellow officers to call on the Lord Mayor, Sir James Gallagher, on the Wednesday. With Cullen and Nugent were Major James Crean, the head of the National Volunteers, the Hon. Fitzroy Hemphill and Creed Meredith. None of these three were aware of Cullen and Nugent’s contacts with O’Connor or the Irish Volunteers.

Unfortunately, Gallagher proved less than helpful:

Our reception was anything but dignified. Both the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave us terrible abuse. Both expressed the hope that not a rebel would escape.

One by one we tried to reason with him that it was for the purpose of stopping the fight that we wished to intervene. He had been to the Castle and had consulted with the Army Authorities already.

After a long debate he said he would mention the matter. But he would not recommend any cessation of hostilities until the rebels were wiped out.

With this not-very-encouraging promise obtained from the Lord Mayor, for what it was worth, Nugent and Cullen left the other three to next try John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow and, more importantly, the Secretary of the National Volunteers. Through him, the pair hoped to induce John Redmond to exert his influence in Westminster for a truce. They were no more successful here:

Donovan was also very hostile and said that a telegram had been sent to him by Mr Redmond ordering him to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Military. The telegram had not been delivered and that was why he did not act. He could not act on a ‘phone message. We were sorry for this as we would have answered the call and used the arms and ammunition on our own way.

With little to show for their efforts, Cullen and Nugent returned to O’Connor, who had been mulling over options after talking with Pearse in the GPO. He asked the pair to contact the Dublin Fusiliers, one of the British regiments tasked with putting down the Rising, and offer £2 a man to defect, as per Pearse’s instructions.

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Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Neither Cullen nor Nugent bothered asking O’Connor if he even had that sort of money – as the Fusiliers were based in Kilmainham, which was firmly in enemy hands, they had no chance of reaching them anyway. When Cullen offered the services of whatever National Volunteers he could muster, O’Connor declined.

“Send them home. We have no arms for them now,” he said, adding a trifle optimistically: “We will want them again.”[12]

The End and the Start

O’Connor spent the rest of that fateful week passing messages in and out of the GPO – when he could. He was able to pass through British cordons by showing a letter to his father, a solicitor to the Land Commission, from Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, but even this proof of official connections had its limits, such as on the Thursday, when he found himself under fire while en route to the GPO and was forced to turn back.

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Irish rebels (of the ICA?) take aim on a rooftop

The nonstop rattle of machine-guns had by then permeated the city, intercut by the boom of artillery. On Saturday, news filtered out that the rebel leaders had surrendered, cutting short the fight for Irish freedom. Those Volunteers who had not managed to slip away were held overnight on the wet grass of the Rotunda Gardens under searchlights and the curses of their British captors.

Still at large, O’Connor made further use of his father, getting him to write a letter to Dublin Castle, begging for intervention for George and Jack. Even if there was little chance of Joseph being spared execution, there might be hope for his brothers. He was on his way to deliver the letter when a bullet from a sniper, still holding out in the Royal College of Surgeons, ricocheted off a metal box on the corner of Grafton Street. O’Connor had had a close call before, but this time he was not so lucky, being hit in the leg.

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Left to right: George Plunkett, Rory O’Connor and Jack Plunkett

So stricken, O’Connor was admitted to Mercer’s Hospital under an assumed name. Nonetheless, some of the nurses guessed he was one of the rebels on account of the holy medal in his pocket, a gift from Fiona Plunkett, Joseph’s sister, with whom he had an off-and-on relationship. Concerned that the nurses – who made plain their views on the Rising by telling O’Connor that he ought to be shot – would give away the identity of his patient, the doctor had him moved to a nursing home in Leeson Street.

He stayed there for three weeks until his brother Norbett found him. Another visitor while he was recuperating was Cullen, to whom O’Connor had sent word through one of the friendlier nurses. There was much for them to talk about, after all.[13]

As Nugent put it:

For Rory O’Connor, Capt. T.J. Cullen, myself and the men who had already started organising again, the war was still on. Rory mentioned that it did not stop at any time, and while he and those who were prepared to work with him did so it would continue to carry on in various ways.[14]

“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote Y.B. Yeats on the Rising but, for O’Connor, it was merely business as usual.

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Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in ruins after the Rising

Transience

O’Connor had never been particularly important before the Rising, instead serving as an aide to those who were, such as Joseph Plunkett. But now, as one of the few leaders of the Irish Volunteers alive and at liberty, he was ideally placed to help shape events. For, though the Rising had been a military disaster, its aftermath provided a crop of opportunities to be harvested.

249_1Patrick Little was one of his allies in this venture. If before Little had been dipping his toe in radical politics, now he threw himself in wholeheartedly, having had his offices in Eustace Street, where he did his work as a solicitor, trashed by British soldiers during Easter Week. When a rifle was found on the premises, the soldiers dragged out the son of the caretaker into the narrow lane at the back of the building, where they shot him.

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H.H. Asquith

The boy had been with the Irish Volunteers but, confused by the contradictory orders over mobilisation, he had decided to stay at home with his family. When H. H. Asquith visited Dublin three weeks after the Rising, Little made sure to avoid contact as the Prime Minister passed by Eustace Street.[15]

As editor of New Ireland, Little had a platform to use, and in O’Connor he had a teacher in the new way of thinking. The two would lunch together in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, and Little attributed much of the content of his writings from that time to these conversations. Not only Little but the country as a whole was revaluating its stance on the National Question. When the pair travelled together to South Longford for the by-election in May 1917, even they were taken aback by the fervour of the crowds who responded at the sight of a tricolour with hearty cheers of “Up the Republic!”

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The former site of Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, Dublin

“This was a time when public opinion was very confused and in a very transient condition,” Little remembered. “Many Unionists were prepared to accept Home Rule, and moderate national opinion, which represented the majority of people – and included the former supporters of Redmond – were becoming strongly Republican.”[16]

Sinn Féin Rising

Among the beneficiaries of this shifting mood was Arthur Griffith. The ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the British state had called the Rising but, in truth, Griffith and his talking-shop of a group had had naught to do with it. Which did not stop Sinn Féin from basking in the appropriated glow of Easter Week when the public mood turned in its favour. Nor was Griffith in any particular hurry to correct the misnaming. Nationalist Ireland had been dominated for years by the IPP but now, as trust in Redmond and his Home Rule agenda plummeted, Sinn Féin was poised to step in with a promise of its own.

0209“As Ireland became pro-insurrection she became Sinn Féin, without knowing what Sinn Féin was,” was how one contemporary described the phenomenon, “except that it stood generally for Irish independence in the old complete way, the way in which the Irish Party had not stood for it.”[17]

Opportunity presented itself in North Roscommon at the start of the new year, when the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) died in January 1917, and Count George Plunkett was the Sinn Féin selection for the resulting by-election. If the Rising had been a family affair for the Plunketts, then so was the subsequent political movement, as the Count was the father of Joseph Plunkett, and O’Connor, serving as the candidate’s unofficial aide, was his son-in-law in a way, given his romantic involvement with Fiona Plunkett.

When Nugent arrived in Roscommon, he found the contested consistency gripped in the chill of winter, and a threadbare campaign. The local Sinn Féin circles had not even been aware he was coming, so poor was the communication between them and Dublin. Nugent had been sent by O’Connor to help with the canvassing, but the only thing O’Connor had given him was advice, and that amounted to no more than ‘do what you think is right’.

Neither he nor Nugent had any experience in electioneering, or in public speaking in the case of the latter, but the handful of Sinn Féin activists who greeted him at Dromod Station, Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon, insisted he speak after Mass the next morning, the opening day of the campaign. Despite his doubts, as he stood in one foot of snow on the platform, Nugent did not feel he could refuse.

Nugent was set to speak at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, after Thomas Smyth, the Irish Party MP for Leitrim South. The two foes were driven to the church by the local priest, Father Lavin, who was keen to stay on friendly terms with both sides. After being introduced by Lavin in the church, Smyth delivered his pience, only to be received in stony silence by the congregation. Nugent then rose without waiting for an invitation and mounted the steps to the chancel for his turn.

The Election of the Snows

Afterwards, Nugent would not be able to remember what he said, only that, according to others who were present, they were “very strong things”. When Smyth tried to interrupt, he was quickly shushed. Nugent could read the writing on the wall: “As far as the election in this district was concerned, the Count had won there that first Sunday morning of the campaign.”

vote-e1487072014711-300x254Things went even worse for Smyth later that day. He was so angry that he refused to let Nugent come with him and Father Lavan in the car to Slatta Chapel, where the two representatives were due to appear next.

“Smith [sic] could have saved himself the journey,” Nugent gloated, as the MP’s vehicle became stuck in the snow, forcing him and the priest to walk to Slatta Chapel, which Nugent had already reached by horse and trap. “My meeting was over before he arrived and it was most enthusiastic.”

Rubbing salt further into the wound, when Smyth finally had the chance to address the crowd, he was barred from doing so.[18]

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Margaret Pearse

The times, they were a-changing, a point underlined when the votes from polling day were counted in the Roscommon Courthouse. Nugent drove back to Dublin, reaching his house in Dundrum to find it full of Sinn Féin supporters, including Margaret and Margaret Mary Pearse, the mother and sister respectively of the 1916 martyr. Though Margaret Pearse said she would be content with a win by as much as a single vote, even she found Nugent’s announcement of a landslide victory by Count Plunkett hard to take in.

When news of the result and its scale was published in the evening papers, the country understood that a great statement had been made – what that message was, however, would take some deciphering.[19]

Different Ideas

“When people say that this was not a Republican election, they say wrong,” Nugent would later write. “The principles of the men of Easter Week were shouted from every platform. From the crowds attending these meetings came the cries of ‘Up Dublin’.”[20]

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Count Plunkett

That he felt the need to clarify the issue was a sign in itself. It was not even clear if Count Plunkett intended to take his newly-won seat at Westminster, as some wanted, or if he would abstain on Republican principles, as per his declaration. And so O’Connor, acting as Plunkett’s unofficial director of operations, dispatched Nugent back to Roscommon to gauge local opinion on the question.

He returned with the answer that the electorate was not only fully in agreement with its MP but would return him with an even greater majority in the event of another election. When the Count confirmed that he would indeed not be taking his seat, there was, according to Nugent, “consternation in the ranks of Sinn Féin.”[21]

It was clear that, despite their points of ideological overlap, there was at least as many differences between Sinn Féin and the burgeoning Republican movement, embodied in the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and behind-the-scenes operatives like O’Connor. “Rory O’Connor and the people working with him had different ideas from the Sinn Féin party,” was how Nugent put it.[22]

‘Politicians’, a term loaded with contempt in the mouths of Nugent and other Republicans, included their Sinn Féin partners as much as the Redmondite old guard:

The politicians were different from the Volunteers. They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines. They were preparing to go back to their old political policy of action. Passive resistance was their programme.[23]

When Count Plunkett announced at a rally in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, that the Irish Volunteers would be reformed and organised, this was exactly in line with O’Connor’s agenda, which most certainly did not include ‘passive resistance’. For there was a new battle to be waged, one not limited to Dublin and a few other scattered districts as Easter Week had been.

It would be nationwide.

It would be a Rising worthy of the name.

O’Connor’s statement on Easter Tuesday – “Send them home. We shall want them again” – now took on a different, more prophetic, meaning.

“But the politicians were troublesome,” Nugent noted with a sigh. “They did not countenance another fight.”[24]

Which Ticket?

However annoying politicians might be, politics was not something that could be ignored. O’Connor had by then appointed himself secretary to Count Plunkett who, having scored his major win in North Roscommon, did not seem inclined to do anything with it. O’Connor would have to enter the Plunkett family residence in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street early enough to find all the mail dealing with the new movement before the absent-minded Count could put the letters in his pocket and forget about them.[25]

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin

As Ireland reassessed where it stood on the National Question, Sinn Féin was undergoing some restructuring of its own. After the North Roscommon by-election, Griffith increased the Executive with a few extra faces but, otherwise, “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive members. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.”

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Arthur Griffith

Lennon was uncomfortably aware that Count Plunkett and his Republican-minded followers were forming a party of their own, one with which “it was difficult to work in harmony. Many of these then Republicans treated Mr Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion.” Griffith may have had name recognition, being “probably the best-known man out of gaol,” but what his opponents lacked in numbers, they made up for in pushiness.

A meeting held in the Mansion House, dubbed the ‘Plunkett Convention’, on the 19th April 1917, was meant to unite the radicals of Ireland. Instead, it resulted in an undignified scramble between Giffith’s and Plunkett’s followers, one which Lennon cringed to remember:

The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.

After the Convention had ended, Griffith withdrew to his offices at 6 Harcourt Street. He was sitting in the front drawing-room with Lennon and a few other confidantes when:

Suddenly the door was thrown open and a man of splendid physique entered, followed by a frail figure. It was Michael Collins, accompanied by Rory O’Connor. This was the first time I ever saw the former. His entrance was characteristic of his manner at that period.

Looking around, rather truculently, his eyes rested on Mr Griffith, and he asked in a loud voice: “I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on.”

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Michael Collins

Griffith appeared rather more interested in the cigarette he was smoking. The by-election in South Longford was the second such contest of the year, one in which Sinn Féin and Plunkett’s faction were eager to replicate the success of North Roscommon – on whose terms, however, had yet to be decided.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket you will alienate all the young men,” Collins thundered to the room. By ‘young men’, he meant the Irish Volunteers. Even if not meant as a threat, it was hard not to take it as one.

‘A Great Silent Worker’

To Lennon, this was the first time he had heard the Republic being pushed as official policy, a sign of how divergent he and the others in Sinn Féin were from Collins, O’Connor and the other ‘young men’. The discussion – or argument, rather – warred on until, tiring of it, Collins and O’Connor withdrew to count the donations from the convention, the question put aside but most certainly not forgotten.[26]

It was noticeable that Collins had been doing the talking while O’Connor remained silent; ‘fragile’, perhaps, but no less of a presence – or influence. “Rory O’Connor was not a politician or a parade man,” so Nugent described him. “He was a great silent worker and, consequently, he was not as well known to the rank and file of the army as were most of the other leaders.”[27]

That the Plunkett Convention had happened at all was due to O’Connor. Dillon believed he had taken on the role of its secretary because no one else was doing it The invitation to the event, issued in the name of Count Plunkett, had been met with many a hostile reception, at least according to the Freeman’s Journal. Which was unsurprising, this being the organ of the IPP, but O’Connor would read almost every daily edition, specifically looking for the names of the one or two members in the various county or district councils who did not condemn the invitation, even when the rest voted to reject it.

freemans20journal20bannerTo each of these dissenters, O’Connor would dispatch a letter, saying:

I see by the paper that you are the only person in ____ who represents the true opinions of the people and therefore send you a card of invitation to the convention.

“In this way,” Dillon described, “a very large attendance at the [Plunkett] Convention from all over the country was secured and tickets left over were given to Dublin supporters, so that when the day came the Round Room was full.”

For his part, Dillon had drawn up the agenda, with a number of resolutions to be passed. He did this at O’Connor’s request since Count Plunkett, after signing his name to the invites, assumed that all he had to do was address the attendees and leave it at that. Without O’Connor intervening with a workable agenda, the event might still have been an embarrassing flop. Instead, the Plunkett Convention was the first large-scale meeting in a movement that would upheave the political status quo.[28]

And yet, despite all his work, O’Connor “never appeared on the scene. He was almost unknown,” according to Nugent, which was apparently the way he liked it. Even with the culmination of Sinn Fein’s political ascent, the Dáil Éireann, Geraldine Dillon knew of her friend’s involvement only as the one who escorted her and Fiona Plunkett to its inauguration, on the 21st January 1919, at the Mansion House.[29]

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The first Dáil session, January 1919

On that same day, two policemen were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in the opening volley of what would become variously known as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish War or the Tan War; throughout which, O’Connor was to remain in the shadows, an obscure figure to the wider public despite the leading role he played.

When a reporter from the Derry Journal met O’Connor in April 1922, finding him to be a “serious, ascetic and somewhat cadaverous-looking man”, it was noted that, despite his involvement in the Republican movement since 1916, no one had heard of him until the recent Treaty split.[30]

To be continued in: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

References

[1] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 15-8, 30-1

[2] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2012), p. 311

[3] Ibid, pp. 195, 199-200

[4] O’Connor, Norbert (BMH / WS 527), p. 2

[5] University College Dublin Archives, Éamon de Valera Papers, P/150/576

[6] Ibid

[7] Little, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 5-6, 8

[8] Nugent, p. 43

[9] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 210-3 ; Little, p. 11

[10] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 214-5

[11] Ibid, pp. 219-22, 224-6

[12] Nugent, pp. 32-3

[13] Ibid, p. 50 ; Plunkett Dillon, pp. 226, 228 ; Little, pp. 14-5

[14] Nugent, p. 51

[15] Little, p. 21

[16] Ibid, pp. 16, 52, 54

[17] O’Hegarty, P.S., The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2015), p. 5

[18] Nugent, pp. 70-1

[19] Ibid, p. 79

[20] Ibid, p. 75

[21] Ibid, p. 80

[22] Ibid, p. 67

[23] Ibid, p. 68

[24] Ibid, pp. 69, 80

[25] P/150/576

[26] Lennon, Michael, ‘Looking Backward. Glimpses into Later History’, J.J. O’Connell Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI) MS 22,117(1)

[27] Nugent, p. 43

[28] P/150/575

[29] Nugnet, p. 92 ; Plunkett Dillon, p. 268

[30] Derry Journal, 17/04/1922

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick J., WS 1769

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Connor, Norbert, WS 527

Books

O’Hegarty, P.S., The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2015)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2012)

Newspaper

Derry Journal

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Éamon de Valera Papers

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

Memories of Mountjoy

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‘The prisoner’

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

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

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

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

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Seán Milroy

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

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

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Ouroboros

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

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

Divine Law

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T.P. O’Connor

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

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

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

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

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Ulster Unionist postcard

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

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

(Not) Answering the Irish Question

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David Lloyd George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracles and the Lack of

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William Redmond

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

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

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

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

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Edward Carson

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

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

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

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Stephen Gwynn

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

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

And, with that, reported the Irish Times:

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

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

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Joe Devlin

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

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

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

‘A More Reasonable Outlook’

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

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Aftermath of the Battle of Messines

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

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

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

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

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British soldiers in the trenches

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

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

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

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William Redmond’s grave in Locre, Belgium

‘Tired Out’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Redmond delivering a speech

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

Dead Cat Bounce

If, if, if…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Dillon

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

He got that right.

Return to Ireland

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

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

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Crowds watching in Wesmoreland Row as the prisoners march through Dublin

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

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

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Seán O’Mahony

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

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

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

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Group photograph of some of the released prisoners

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

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

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

Choices and Omens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Éamon de Valera

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

Roads to Take or Not to Take

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

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

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Irish Volunteers

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

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

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Patrick McCartan

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

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

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

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Countess Markievicz

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

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

Kathleen Clarke’s War

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Kathleen Clarke

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

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

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

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Tom Clarke

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

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

And that simply would not do.

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

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

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

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

Laying the Cards on the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Principle?

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Eoin MacNeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Éamon de Valera (in uniform), speaking before Ennis Courthouse during the East Clare election, 1917

Winning the Argument

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

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

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

Both, was the reply.

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict…

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Arthur Griffith

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

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

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

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Count Plunkett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And Resolution

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Tommy Dillon

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Clarke’s dismay:

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

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

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

Unconvention

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

An indignant Moylett replied:

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

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

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

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Éamon de Valera

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish Volunteers

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

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

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

Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

References

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid, pp. 270-1

[7] Ibid, p. 271

[8] Ibid, pp. 271-2

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

[10] Gwynn, p. 249

[11] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[12] Denman, p. 111

[13] Gwynn, p. 255

[14] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[15] Meleady, pp. 272-3

[16] Ibid, p. 273

[17] Ibid, 11/07/1917

[18] Denman, p. 114

[19] Ibid, p. 118

[20] Gwynn, p. 266

[21] Meleady, p. 240

[22] Ibid, p. 267

[23] Ibid, p. 268

[24] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[25] Gwynn, pp. 259-60

[26] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

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

[28] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

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

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

[31] O’Brien, p. 134

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

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

[34] Ibid, p. 113

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

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

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

[38] Nugent, p. 106

[39] Clarke, p. 188

[40] Ibid, p. 55

[41] Ibid, p. 188

[42] Ibid, pp. 186-7

[43] Ibid, p. 178

[44] Ibid, p. 193

[45] Ibid, pp. 190-1

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

[47] Ibid, p. 97

[48] Ibid, p. 90

[49] Ibid, p. 91

[50] Ibid, pp. 91-2

[51] Ibid, p. 91

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

[53] O’Brien, pp. 99-100

[54] Nugent, p. 107

[55] O’Brien, pp. 135-6

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

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

[58] Clarke, pp. 193-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Bureau of Military History Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

Moylett, Patrick, WS 767

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

Article

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

Trinity College Dublin Collection

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

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Cast Adrift: Joseph Sweeney, Charlie Daly and the Start of the Civil War in Donegal, 1922

Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,

I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,

I let you in, I held you close,

My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.

(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)

Taken Aback

joseph-sweeney-300x274
Joe Sweeney

It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.

While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.

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Seán Mac Eoin

A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.

After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:

That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.

An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.

Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.

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IRA men from Cashel, Co. Tipperary

But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.[1]

As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.[2]

Sweeney’s Journey

The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.

xwilliam-pearse-centre-and-some-st-endas-pupils-performing-fionn-a-dramatic-spectacle-in-the-school-grounds.-opw.jpg.pagespeed.ic_.rfum0_gbbb
Students of St Enda’s performing on school grounds

“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”[3]

From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.[4]

wm_dsc_0417bUpon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”[5]

These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.[6]

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IRA Flying Column

An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.[7]

The Treaty

Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.

treatyToo cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.

Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.

Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.

Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.[8]

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The National Concert Hall, Dublin, originally the National University, where the Treaty debates were held

If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.

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Margaret Pearse

The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.[9]

De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.

Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.[10]

But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”[11]

Civil_War_poster
Pro-Treaty propaganda poster

Divided Divisions

But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.

Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.[12]

sean-lehane-charlie-daly-jack-fitzgearld
Seán Lehane and Charlie Daly (standing, left to right), with three other IRA men

Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.

An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.

Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:

In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.

On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.[13]

Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.[14]

Free Staters
Free State soldiers on parade

Stranger in a Strange Land

So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.

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Drumboe Castle

The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’

In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.

“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”[15]

Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:

I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.

Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.[16]

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IRA men

Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.[17]

These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.[18]

irish-civil-war-1922-752x501
Free State soldiers with a wounded man

“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”[19]

Not an Easy Job

charliedaly
Charlie Daly

When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”[20]

In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.

The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.[21]

It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.[22]

It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”[23]

ira-squad-tipperary-south
IRA men

Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:

…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.

Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.[24]

limerick_ric
Royal Irish Constabulary patrol

Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:

Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.

Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”[25]

Truce and Tension

cathalbrugha
Cathal Brugha

Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the  nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”[26]

Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”[27]

As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.[28]

Parnell_Square
Parnell Square, Dublin, site of the fomer Vaughan Hotel

Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.

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Éamon de Valera

The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”

Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”[29]

He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”

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Eoin O’Duffy

With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”

As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”[30]

A Crooked Correspondence

It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”[31]

mulcahy046Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”[32]

It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”[33]

Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:

…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].

As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:

…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’[34]

O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:

As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.[35]

Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.[36]

‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’

Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:

Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.[37]

So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.

Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”[38]

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.

“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.[39]

It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.[40]

image
The Four Courts, Dublin

But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”[41]

Via Media

220px-liamlynchira
Liam Lynch

A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.

“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.[42]

Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.[43]

Ernie_OMalley
Ernie O’Malley

But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”[44]

This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.[45]

image-1-1
Illustration of Sir Henry Wilson’s assassination in June 1922

Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.

‘Confusion and Alarm’

If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.

Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.[46]

1280px-anti-treaty_ira_convention_at_the_mansion_house2c_dublin2c_on_april_9th_1922
IRA members, including Liam Lynch (front row, fourth from left), at one of the IRA conventions in Dublin, 1922

“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”[47]

Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.[48]

volunteers
IRA men

With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.

“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”

Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”

The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.

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The explosion of the Four Courts, Dublin, July 1922

An Existing Peace

Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:

We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.

Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.

masonic_hall
The Freemasons’ Hall in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, and the base of the anti-Treaty IRA

Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:

Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.

So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.[49]

Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”[50]

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Free State soldiers with armoured vehicle

‘Seizing Every Advantage’

The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:

…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.

The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.

Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.

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Country farmhouses in Co. Donegal

The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.[51]

After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.

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IRA men

Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.

What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?

O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.[52]

Castlefin

Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:

Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.

To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.

soldiers-of-the-irish-national-army-free-state-army-with-british-supplied-uniforms-weapons-and-equipment-the-battle-of-dublin-1922
Free State soldiers

Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:

Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.

O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:

A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.

Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.

For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.[53]

Churchill

The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.[54]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Churchill, Co. Donegal, today

“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”[55]

O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.

Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.

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Anti-Treaty poster

“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:

Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.

As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.

north-longford-flying-column
IRA members

Plans Afoot

O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:

[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.

To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.

“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”

Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.

O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”[56]

the-1922-execution-of-rory-o_connor-irish-republican-army-by-an-irish-national-army-firing-squad-during-the-irish-civil-war
A (presumably staged) photograph of an execution during the Civil War

When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.

While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”

masscard2-673x1024Slaying a man in the heat of battle is one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”[57]

See also: A Debatable Ambush: The Newtowncunningham Incident in Co. Donegal, May 1922

References

[1] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8

[2] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34

[3] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 38-9, 53

[4] Ibid, pp. 64-5, 71

[5] Ibid, p. 75

[6] Ibid, p. 133

[7] Ibid, pp. 160-2

[8] Ibid, pp. 264-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 268-9

[10] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 211

[11] Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R1/24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney/W24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney.pdf (Accessed 29/01/2019), p. 41

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741 – Part II), p. 47

[13] Ibid, p. 109

[14] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[15] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[16] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[17] Ibid, 12/05/1922, 19/05/1922

[18] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[19] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, pp. 68-9

[20] Ibid, p. 68

[21] Ibid, p. 70

[22] Ibid, p. 53

[23] Ibid, p. 62

[24] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 7-9

[25] Ibid, p. 15

[26] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 55

[27] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 366

[28] O’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009), p. 165

[29] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 56

[30] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[31] Ibid, p. 59

[32] Ibid, p. 64

[33] Ibid, p. 65

[34] Ibid, pp. 66-7

[35] Ibid, p. 67

[36] Ibid, p. 68

[37] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204

[38] Ibid, p. 205

[39] Ibid

[40] Andrews, p. 238

[41] Prendergast, Seán (BMH / WS 755 – Part 3), p. 192

[42] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 118

[43] Griffith and O’Grady, p. 275

[44] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 33

[45] Ibid

[46] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-7

[47] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 71

[48] Ibid, p. 72

[49] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-8

[50] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[51] O’Donoghue, pp. 118-20

[52] Ibid, pp. 120-2

[53] Ibid, pp. 122-5

[54] Ibid, p. 126

[55] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[56] O’Donoghue, pp. 126-9

[57] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 305-6

Bibliography

Books

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

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)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and 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’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Prendergast, Seán, WS 755

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721

Newspaper

Derry Journal

Military Service Pensions Collection

Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R1/24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney/W24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney.pdf (Accessed 29/01/2019)

Book Review: Markievicz: Prison Letters & Rebel Writings, by Constance Markievicz (edited by Lindie Naughton) (2018)

Markievicz_cover“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.

The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.

Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.

“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.

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Countess Markievicz, posing in uniform with a pistol

But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:

I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.

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Seán MacBride

But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:

The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.

Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.

To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”

Markievicz_meeting
Markievicz speaking at a rally

On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”

Eva_Gore-Boothe
Eva Gore-Boothe, Markievicz’s sister

Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.

“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:

But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.

The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”

Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (13/04/2019)

Rebel Thinker: Liam Mellows and the Philosophy of Resistance, 1922 (Part VIII)

A continuation of: Rebel Schismatic: Liam Mellows on the Brink of Conflict, 1922 (Part VII)

The War Begins

Padraig_OConnor
Padraig O’Connor

In the early hours of the 28th June 1922, as he readied the men of his battalion inside Portebello Barracks for the assault on the Four Courts – the main part of which would fall to his men – Commandant Padraig O’Connor was in a pessimistic mood. He went so far as to make a wager with his second-in-command that not only would they fail, but the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, in whose service they were about to risk their lives, would lose the war. O’Connor doubted they would last more than a few days.

The reasons, as he explained to the other man, were obvious:

We numbered 800 all ranks, the second Eastern division was 500, with 200 from Kilkenny and it was reckoned we would have 1000 men available in Dublin. To oppose this force the Irregulars had in Dublin an estimated force of 3000 men, and there was in the country a force of 20,000 to 30,000 Irregulars.

Furthermore, O’Connor thought it implausible that the anti-Treaty leadership would be stupid enough to allow themselves to be boxed in the Four Courts. In addition to the garrison there, several other units of the Dublin IRA (Irish Republican Army) who opposed the Treaty were positioned about the city and would surely challenge them every step of the way. Nonetheless, O’Connor pushed aside such doubts when the time came at midnight to move out.

Free Staters
Free State soldiers

Urban combat was nothing new to him. An experienced soldier, O’Connor had cut his martial teeth against the British during the War of Independence, learning as he did so the value of caution. He accordingly moved his battalion in a piecemeal manner, allowing time to pass before the next unit advanced. Any ambush on the way would not find his charges bunched up as targets.

And yet, as the soldiers advanced through the dark, deserted streets, the resistance O’Connor was anticipating to find never materialised. There was a spark of alarm when a shot went off in Clanbrassil Street but that turned out to be an accident by one of his men. Contrary to his fears, the way to the Four Courts had been left entirely open to them.

fourcourtsquays
Four Courts, Dublin

Coming Right in the End

Still, O’Connor would not be claiming that wager just yet. His battalion continued over the Liffey to Smithfield, west of the Four Courts, while the other units allocated to the operation took up their own assigned posts, until the target was surrounded. In the Four Courts Hotel, sitting westwards of its namesake, Commandant Paddy Daly would direct the proceedings.

image-2
Paddy Daly (front), with other Free State soldiers

O’Connor could see that the Free State soldiers in the match factory opposite the Four Courts’ record office had been able to barricade their windows unmolested, with the Anti-Treatyites facing them doing nothing to interfere. But, if the enemy had been bizarrely complacent before, that stopped when the boom of an artillery gun signalled the start of the attack.

Almost as if waiting for such a provocation, the Four Courts garrison unleashed a storm of their own, to O’Connor’s horror:

The echo of the 18 Pounder had scarcely died away when every weapon at their command was discharged in to the factory windows. The fire was so heavy the flash of fire lit up the room almost as brilliantly as the street light before it splintered into a thousand fragments in the first few seconds. The intense fire punctured the tanks on the roof and deluged the room.

Seeing that they had been temporarily outgunned, O’Connor called on his men to withdraw to a more sheltered area of the factory.

Despite this small victory, the garrison could do little but stay pinned in place while the Free State ordnance pounded away. The barricades in the Four Courts’ windows were methodically dismantled by a Lewis machine-gun that tore into the lower tier of sandbags until they collapsed, taking the ones on top with them.[1]

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Free State soldiers attacking the Four Courts

When the rotunda was struck, those beneath its dome felt themselves stretched up to their full length by the shockwave before coming back down again, along with the debris that showered them. When one asked Liam Mellows how long the war was going to last, he had no easy answer to give. “It will last a long time.”

“Will it last five years?” the other ventured.

“Oh, no, it will last much more than that,” Mellows said. “But they’ll come right in the end.”[2]

Die Hard Chiefs

When an 18-Pounder of theirs blew through the records office wall, it was decided among the Free State command that the time had come to storm the building. First, though, an attempt at a negotiated surrender was made.

As O’Connor recalled:

It was a most unusual ceasefire; the bugler sounded the call outside the Brigade command post, the Four Courts Hotel and each bugler took up the call until bugle calls were being sounded all around the area. The silence that followed was unbroken and one found that one instinctively lowered his voice to a whisper when speaking.

0009cb42-440
Seán MacBride

The anti-Treaty IRA leadership, or the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ as O’Connor dubbed them, were willing to listen but no more than that. Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Seán MacBride stood at the gates of the Four Courts as their Free State counterparts conveyed the terms. As these were for unconditional surrender, they were instantly rejected. With nothing else to say, the two sides proceeded to pass the rest of the parley with idle chit-chat.

“When are you coming in with us, Paddy?” Mellows asked Paddy Daly.

“Tomorrow, with the bayonets,” replied a tactless Daly, chilling the previously amiable mood.

“Call yourself an Irishman,” MacBride snapped.

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Joe McKelvey

“I don’t know, but I did not have to write letters to the papers to prove I was,” Daly retorted, referring to the French-reared MacBride’s public assertion of his Irishness. McKelvey had to take an enraged MacBride by the arm and practically pull him away.

“Good night, Paddy,” Mellows said to Padraig O’Connor.

“Good night, Liam.”

And that was that. The men returned to their respective posts and the buglers called again, this time to announce the resumption of the barrage. “The din was awful for a while and then it steadied down to an occasional shot,” O’Connor wrote in his memoirs. He was finding that one could get used to just about anything.[3]

A Purity of Purpose

As the days stretched from the 28th June to the 30th, it occurred to the men inside the Four Courts that the new Dáil, elected by the general election earlier in the month, was due to meet. When Ernie O’Malley asked if there were any TDs among them, Peadar O’Donnell mentioned Mellows and wondered if he would give them to a speech to mark the occasion.[4]

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Liam Mellows

In this, O’Donnell was wrong, as Mellows had failed to be re-elected. At the time, it had been regarded by some as a particularly shocking rejection on the part of an ungrateful electorate. “Deputies who had served the nation with unquestioning fidelity and purity of purpose are excluded from the Government of the Republic which they helped to create and defend,” lamented Poblacht Na h-Eireann, the mouthpiece of the anti-Treaty cause. “We need mention no other name than that of Liam Mellows to show how far the nation has departed from the spirit of the last four years.”[5]

There were, in any case, more immediate matters for the Four Courts’ defenders to be concerned about. The munitions block had been on fire for some time, the crackling flames creeping down from the roof to the lower storeys. Afraid that the ammunition might detonate at any moment, the defenders hastily withdrew into the rest of the complex, taking some solace in that the fire would serve to keep the enemy at bay as well.

O’Malley was waiting in the yard, by the front entrance, while eyeing a nearby Lancia lorry as a potential target, when he was thrown against the iron bars of the gate by the force of an explosion. The fire had reached the munitions as feared. Fragments of stone and wood and scraps of paper came down in a charred hail, while a thick column of smoke rose from where the munitions block had been.

Bullets began ringing off the bars O’Malley was sheltering behind, accompanied by the smaller percussions of grenades being hurled against the walls or into the yard. O’Malley wisely chose to dash back inside the building.

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Front of the Four Courts in more peaceful times

The interior was in a scarcely better condition, its corridors and rooms littered with broken masonry and smouldering records, but it afforded some protection for now. When O’Malley found Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey in conversation, O’Connor called him over and said that the time had come to surrender. What ammunition that had not just gone up in smoke was in short supply, escape through the flooded sewers was impossible and whatever help there was outside did not seem in any hurry to arrive.

These were not facts O’Malley could deny. But that did not make them any easier to accept. He asked Mellows, who was peering at them through a shell-blown hole in the wall, what he thought.

“The Republic is being attacked here,” Mellows replied. “We must stand or fall by it. If we surrender now, we have deserted it.”

‘The Wilderness of the Treaty’

In this, he and O’Malley were in full accord. McKelvey, O’Connor and some of the other Headquarters staff were not so sure. Neither was Father Albert Bibby, a Franciscan monk who had come to grant them absolution. Nobody had any idea at the time about how pointed a weapon the power to bestow – or deny – this blessing would become.

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Father Albert Bibby

With his brown robes and sandaled feet, Father Albert struck an incongruously medieval figure amidst the sound and fury of modern warfare. He preached to them the example of Patrick Pearse who had surrendered to save lives, but entreaties fell on the deaf ears of Mellows and O’Malley.

When O’Connor and McKelvey tried raising the subject once more, Mellows was adamant: “I’ve already told you what I thought, and still think.”[6]

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Father Fahy

It was the Easter Week of 1916 all over again. Then, Mellows had stood unmoved in an old abandoned country house in Co. Galway while another man of the cloth, Father Thomas Fahy, urged him to see the necessity of surrender. Pearse had already done so in Dublin, and Fahy invoked his name in support of such a step – as Father Bibby would do six years later – but Mellows had remained closed to any argument but his own, even while the certainty of those around him crumbled, and the choice slipped out of his hands.[7]

Better to live to fight another day, so decided the Galway Volunteers, as they voted to disband and return to their homes. Even then, Mellows had preferred to go on the run than submit – but that was not an option in the Four Courts, encircled as it was by Free State guns. O’Malley began to cry as even he bowed to the inevitable, but Mellows merely went along with the rest.[8]

At 3:30 pm on the 30th June, a white flag was waved. Half an hour later, the one hundred and forty men who made up the garrison came out with their hands raised. With barely a word said, the beaten men were lined up against a wall and divided into groups, to be driven off in lorries to Mountjoy Jail.

Despite the relative silence of the proceedings, the battle for the Four Courts finished, not with a whimper but with a bang when, just after 5 pm, the back of the structure was rocked by a massive detonation. The fire had reached the ammunition stocks there and the results could be seen in the column of black smoke rising a hundred feet in the air, and felt in the debris of dust and charred scraps of paper that scattered about the surrounding area.

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The Four Courts explode

This was not yet the end, as a further series of blasts continued within the Four Courts, thwarting the efforts of firemen to save what was left of the historic building and forcing the would-be rescuers back, some with injures from the falling stone and metal fragments. It was not until evening that the nearby inhabitants felt safe enough to venture out on to the pavements.[9]

The drama was done – for now. For, even as he and his comrades were marched away to captivity, Mellows continued to take the long view. “There’s one thing this will do,” he told O’Donnell beside him. “They’ll save the people from wandering about for a guardian in the wilderness of the Treaty.”[10]

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Prisoners being led away from the Four Courts

‘Striking and Vapouring’

It was a defiant response to the shame of surrender, and one typical of Mellows: impassioned, implacable and infused with a self-righteousness that left no room for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he bore some responsibility for the debacle. For the leadership of the IRA Executive, in which Mellows had played a prominent role, had been an unmitigated disaster. Risk evaluation, cause and effect, empathy for an alternative point of view and other concepts with more than one syllable had seemed utterly beyond their grasp.

How a group of otherwise capable men could fail so utterly baffled Padraig O’Connor as he entered the captured yard of the Four Courts, packed as it was with stolen cars. He assumed that such theft had been for the purpose of goading the Provisional Government into making the first move but, as he reviewed the events of the past few days, the less sense they made, for he could discern no clear thought process at all in the actions of the Anti-Treatyites.[11]

After all their defiance, with the seizure of the Four Courts and other buildings throughout the country, the bank raids and rampant thievery:

It must have been apparent that there would have to be a flop of the Government, or a fight. When it came to a fight they were fully aware that the Four Courts were about to be attacked. They did nothing about it…The way down to the Four Courts was left open and they took the attitude “Hit me now with a child in my arms”. They were so close to the problem they could not see the details.[12]

At almost every point, the Anti-Treatyites made their enemies’ work easier for them. Holes had been bored through each floor of the Four Courts – presumably for easier access – and then covered with blankets, so that, when these caught alight, the draught through the gaps guaranteed that the flames would spread throughout the rest of the building.[13]

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The ruins of the Four Courts

O’Connor searched in vain for some kind of explanation of their behaviour, only to run into one logical wall after another. Had the garrison expected the people of Dublin to rise up on their side?

If so, why had they spent so much time on details like the elaborate sandbag barriers outside the Four Courts?

If they were confident of success, why allow themselves to be hemmed into a defensive position?

If they had feared to lose, why did they not use their superior numbers to crush the Pro-Treatyites before they reached the Four Courts?[14]

If, if, if…

O’Connor concluded that such speculation was pointless. He and the anti-Treaty leadership were of just too different mindsets to understand each other. For Mellows, merely resisting was victory enough for the Republic. To O’Connor, all the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ had accomplished was inflict “as much damage possible without winning, and then went to the Gaols and camps as martyrs in the cause of Kathleen [Ni Houlihan].”

Even defeat and incarceration taught them nothing: “They continued the attitude striking and vapouring which with them passed as pure idealism and maybe it was, of sorts.”[15]

Letters from Mountjoy

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Liam Lynch

Four months later, Liam Lynch was writing as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA to O’Malley. Lynch had escaped Dublin on the day the Free State began shelling the Four Courts and so avoided the captivity that had befallen so many of his colleagues on the IRA Executive.

O’Malley was another exception. Despite surrendering with the rest of the Four Courts garrison, he had managed to slip away and rejoin the Anti-Treatyites still at large. Lynch had appointed him as Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, with instructions to set up base in Dublin and continue the war from there, while Lynch directed the overall strategy from Munster.

And there was a lot to direct, not only in Ireland. “Any chance of getting in touch with Mellowes [alternative spelling] for information regarding America which would be helpful to Officers?” he wrote to O’Malley on the 7th September 1922.

Of particular interest were the munitions already purchased there, such as the Thompson machine-guns detained by the American Government and waiting to be delivered. Lynch was aware of Mellows’ previous sojourn in the United States and it was on that basis he was sure he “would be able to give a good deal of information and advice which would be valuable.”[16]

For Mellows was not idle during his confinement in Mountjoy Prison. “Are we in touch with general situation? Well, yes! As far the newspapers allow us to be,” he wrote in response to O’Malley on the 23rd August.

Letters between the two men had been smuggled in and out of Mountjoy, allowing O’Malley to give a general outline of the war, for which Mellows thanked him. He was of like-mind with O’Malley’s opinion on their propaganda: “Agree with you as to poorness. Needs badly to be livened up.” The problem was that their material “seems to me to be too personal.”

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Michael Collins

Otherwise, he kept an upbeat tone: “The F.S. [Free State] seems to be a bit groggy these days.” Although Mellows did not say as much, he was writing a day after the death of Michael Collins, whose loss had knocked some of the stuffing out of Pro-Treatyites. It was enough for the prison governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, to gloomily predict the imminent return of the British.

Which would amount to a victory for Mellows’ and O’Malley’s cause, nullifying as it would the Treaty and possibly reuniting the sundered IRA factions against the common foe. It had been a cherished dream for the anti-Treaty leadership, though Mellows did not allow such happy possibilities to distract him from assisting O’Malley with character references.[17]

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Seamus O’Donovan

A fellow prisoner, Seamus O’Donovan, had informed Mellows about a large amount of raw material for explosives hidden about Dublin from his time as the IRA Director of Chemicals. Mellows was quick to grasp the possibilities.

“If a good chemist or engineer were available, a lot of stuff could be turned out,” he told O’Malley:

Can you supply such a man for this purpose? Ryan, O/C Engineers, 3rd, has been mentioned, but it is not certain whether he is free or not. A better man would be John J. Tallon who worked for D/C [O’Donovan] at F.[our] C.[ourts] up to the attack. As he lived out, he was not captured.

For further information, Mellows recommended O’Donovan’s sister and supplied her address in Drumcondra. In the meantime: “Keep up the heart old son. Regards from us all. God bless you.”[18]

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Women protesting outside Mountjoy, circa 1922 (for more information, see https://www.rte.ie/archives/2013/0426/385803-maud-gonne-macbride-speaking-in-1949/)

Judging the Situation

Mellows did not limit his advice to details, for there was the bigger picture to consider. “I wish to point out that the matter of establishing a Prov. Republican Govt. has become imperative because of the possibility of the English taking a hand sooner or later,” he wrote on the 29th August.

For Mellows, the current war was as much against the ancestral foe as fellow Irishmen “duped or dazzled by the Free State idea.” The latter enemy, however, were perhaps a greater danger than the other, threatening as they did to outflank the Anti-Treatyites on home ground:

For the British to calumniate Republicans and belittle their cause by besmirching them is one thing; but for F.S. (and supposed potential Repubs.) to do it is another – and different, and worse thing; because the British will not use British arguments to cloak their arguments but Irish ones.

To prevent such muddying of the ideological waters, it was essential to set up the aforementioned Provisional Republican Government, he wrote, “otherwise it becomes a fight (apparently) between individuals” in the public mind, rather than one cause against another, as Mellows preferred to have it seen as.[19]

And it was on the strength of what the Anti-Treatyites could offer the country that they would win or lose – of that, Mellows was sure. Military might alone would be insufficient, and Mellows was prepared to criticise his comrades at liberty for their narrow thinking:

During the past six months we suffered badly because responsible officers, in their desire to act as soldiers, and because of an attitude towards “politicians” acquired as a result (in my opinion) of a campaign directed towards this end by old GHQ, could only judge of situation in terms of guns and men.[20]

In contrast, Mellows wished to use every available resource at hand.

Whether smuggled in, or via a guard with unorthodox reading tastes, a copy of the Workers’ Republic passed to the hands of the Mountjoy residents. The Communist Party, on whose behalf the newspaper spoke, was not, by any measure, particularly influential in Ireland. “A small number of persons in Dublin known as the Communist Party,” was how the Publicity Department of the Free State sneeringly put it.[21]

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Seán McLoughlin

Nonetheless, the Workers’ Republic offered a simple, striking vision, as presented in its edition for the 22nd July 1922. Under the tantalising headline HOW THE REPUBLICANS MAY WIN, Seán McLoughlin – the former ‘boy-commandant’ of the Easter Rising – expounded on how:

The way is clear. Victory lies with the side that can attract to itself the masses, the workers of the towns and cities, and the landless peasants.

The Anti-Treatyites had so far been stymied by their limited objective, and that was “a purely sentimental one as far as the masses are concerned – the establishment of a Republic.” Alone, this was not enough to vanquish the Free State. Neither could the Labour Party by itself. But, together:

The Labour Party, supported by the Communist Party, backing the Republicans and appealing to the people with a proper social programme will be absolutely invincible.

As for the programme in question, it should:

…be based upon the present needs of the masses, comprising confiscation of the land, the big estates and ranches to become the property of landless peasants, social ownership of creameries, etc.; confiscation of all heavy industries, banks, etc.; repudiation of all debts, and the controlling and running of industry; land and housing to be in the hands of councils elected by the workers and peasants.[22]

This provided enough of an inspiration, or at least a starting-point, for Mellows’ own sermon, written over the course of three letters, on the 26th and 29th August and the 9th September 1922. In what is known collectively today as Notes From Mountjoy, he spelled out an ambitious set of policies to cut the authority out from underneath the Free State while winning the hearts and minds of the masses.

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Gerry Adams

It was on these texts that Mellows’ reputation as a pulpiter of Republican Socialism rests, earning him the admiration of other notable figures, from Peadar O’Donnell – who would become a writer and activist of some note himself – to Gerry Adams, who described Notes as being “as relevant today as they were when first written.”[23]

Apostle of the Creed

As a fellow resident of Mountjoy, O’Donnell was able to converse at length with Mellows, often while scrubbing the floors together or some other work duty. These talks made a deep impression on O’Donnell, who celebrated Mellows in his memoirs as “the greatest apostle of the creed of [Wolfe] Tone in our day.”

O’Donnell may have served as Mellows’ own St Paul, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter puts it: “O’Donnell was determined to propagate Mellows’s memory despite the scant body of material left behind.”[24]

Scant, maybe, but Notes was at least an attempt at providing the Anti-Treatyites with a political policy, something they otherwise lacked besides simple repudiation of the Treaty.

Much of the content was unremarkable in itself, filled with the expected denunciations of the Free State, along with detailed musings on the sort of propaganda best to deploy. But it was the social dimensions that Mellows expounded on that elevated his work above the usual Civil War polemic, as well as earning a chariness from Official Ireland in the years to come.

While reprinting the Notes in 1965, the Irish Communist Group ruefully noted how difficult the work had been to find, let alone read:

One can see the Blue Paper in the National Library in Dublin if one meets a co-operative librarian who knows where it is kept. It is not catalogued. Over the past forty years there have been mysterious references to the Notes in Irish left wing circles, but these have only been published once (in the 1950s by the “Liam Mellows” branch of the Labour Party in Dublin).[25]

It had not always been obscured. Indeed, the Free State was only too happy to publish Mellows’ words, via the Irish Independent on the 22nd September 1922, complete with headlines such as COMMUNIST REPUBLIC and DANGER TO CATHOLICISM, in case readers were unsure as to whether or not they were supposed to approve. Mellows may have deplored propaganda of an overly personalised nature but his Red-baiting opponents were not so finicky.[26]

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Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

A month later, the Stationery Office of the Free State printed the letters as part of a 24-page pamphlet, Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others. As the title would suggest, Mellows was not even the intended focus. Inside were intercepted letters between de Valera, Lynch, Mellows and other prominent Anti-Treatyites, the reason for their exposure being “to brand the Republicans (including de Valera!) as communists. Unfortunately,” as the Irish Communist Group put it dryly, “they were far from being communists.”[27]

All-focusIndeed, Mellows was more amused than anything at this label. “The effort to brand it ‘Communism’ is so silly,” he wrote in a letter to Seán Etchingham, a fellow Anti-Treatyite, on the 3rd October 1922. Yes, he had quoted a Communist paper as part of his work, but “I only referred to the Worker because it had set forth so succinctly a programme of constructive work that certainly appealed to me.”[28]

Besides, trapped as he was behind the walls of Mountjoy, writing was the only course of action left open to him, lest he burn with impatience. “I wish to God I were out,” he told Etchingham. “Haven’t felt such energy for years.”[29]

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Seán Etchingahm

A Stake in the Country

Motivating Mellows in particular – as he explained in the first of his letters, on the 25th August 1922 – was the conviction that, for the Republicans to win, they had to look beyond themselves and rediscover their radical roots:

We are back to Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic. They are not with it now and they will always be against it – until it wins.[30]

Among the pillars of society which had turned against the Republic was the Church, for which Mellows’ pen abandoned its usual analytical tone and almost flew off the page in rage:

Hierarchy’s abandonment of principle, justice and honour by support of Treaty. Danger to Catholicism in Ireland from their bad example – their exaltation of deceit and hypocrisy, their attempt to turn the noble aspect of Irish struggle and to bring it to the level of putrid politics; their admission that religion is something to be preached about from pulpits on Sundays, but never put into practice in the affairs of the Nation.[31]

On a calmer note, if Republicans knew what they were against, then the question remained of what they were for. The Republic, yes, but what did that amount to?

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Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

According to Mellows, all they had to do was go back to basics, by way of the Social Programme that the Dáil had adopted in its first meeting, three years ago, in January 1919. Doing so would require no great shift in thinking, assured Mellows, for the Programme was already present on paper, if not yet in practise. The challenge lay in making clear to potential converts among the ‘men of no property’ what was meant by it. Mellows’ suggestion was that:

It be interpreted something like the following, which appeared in the Workers Republic of July 22nd last: ‘Under the Republic all industry will be controlled by the State for the workers’ and farmers’ benefit.” All transport, railways, canals, etc, will be operated by the State – the Republican State – for the benefit of the workers and farmers.[32]

Continuing the line from the Workers’ Republic, banks likewise were to be nationalised, with the lands of aristocrats seized and divided up for others. This would not make any more enemies, for the moneyed classes were already on the side of the Treaty, so who cared about them?

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Thomas Johnson

All of which would suggest the Labour movement as a natural ally. While Mellows criticised Labour for its “unprincipled attitude”, he nonetheless pushed for it to be kept on board. After all, a number of Labour leaders, including Thomas Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal Shannon, had visited the Four Courts earlier in the year and complained of the slackness in the Dáil about implementing the Social Programme:

We should certainly keep Irish Labour for the Republic; it will be possibly the biggest factor on our side. Anything that would prevent Irish Labour becoming Imperialist and respectable will help the Republic.[33]

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Austin Stack

The willingness to court others besides fellow doctrinal Republicans, and his citation of socialist policy from a Communist newspaper, did not make Mellows particularly open-minded, however. No one else seemed worthy of an outreach effort, and even Labour grew stale as a possible auxiliary. Writing to Austin Stack on the 1st September 1922, in the last of his three letters, he washed his hands of Labour, accusing it of having “deserted the people for the flesh-pots of Empire.”

This was while the situation was exceptionally ripe for anyone with a social programme to offer:

Starvation is facing thousands of people…The Free State government’s attitude towards striking postal workers makes clear what its attitude towards workers generally will be. The situation created by all these must be utilised for the Republic.

To help this utilisation, and to break things down to their most basic for even the dimmest reader, Mellows provided Stack with the positions their side should represent:

REPUBLIC – Workers – Labour.

While, on the other hand:

FREE STATE – Capitalism and Industrialism – Empire.[34]

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Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

‘Fleshpots of Empire’

Such ideas, and the passion in which he argued them, was a new development for Mellows. As an elected representative, he had spoken to the Dáil, first during the Treaty debates at the start of the year – where he had earlier used the phrase ‘flesh-pots of Empire’ – and afterwards as part of the anti-Treaty block. And yet, while arguing passionately for the Republic throughout, he had been silent on what form of society this Republic would take. Social policy in general, let alone any particular ideas, had not featured in any of his speeches.[35]

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James Connolly

This sudden conversion surprised even O’Donnell, who had watched with Mellows from a barricaded upper-story window in the Four Courts as the Free State forces below set up positions to attack. The sight of a pair of civilians, diligently on their way to work amidst the unfolding militancy, prompted O’Donnell and Mellows to speculate on the role of trade unions had James Connolly been alive to guide them.

To O’Donnell:

It was the first time I heard Mellows on the play of social forces in the crisis of the Treaty. I was present at the Dáil Éireann session when he made his speech against the Treaty but while what he said then impressed me greatly it gave no indication of the pattern of ideas he uncovered now.[36]

For all his admiration, O’Donnell was to criticise Mellows for not addressing these issues at any of the three IRA Conventions in mid-1922:

He might not have carried the Convention – and he might – but anyway his views would have been argued over, and the dynamics of struggle, once the Republic was attacked, would have favoured them. His message from jail would then have been understood.[37]

Maybe. Maybe not.

Socialism was very much a minority stance among the IRA. When Todd Andrews met O’Donnell during the Truce of 1921, he was amazed to hear such talk as ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers, small farmers and peasants’ and other class warrior tropes. Never before had Andrews heard this sort of language. Despite some ideological flirtation while in O’Donnell’s company, he instantly put these thoughts aside when the two men parted company.[38]

Changing Policy

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Peadar O’Donnell

Perhaps Mellows was simply ahead of his time. More than a decade later, socialism would receive a far warmer reception at the IRA Convention of March 1933, where the question of whether the Irish Republican Army should fight for social change as well as the Republic took centre stage. While Mellows was not around to advocate, his old friend was happy, as one of the delegates, to act as the Aaron to his Moses.

“Is capitalism for or against us?” O’Donnell asked rhetorically. “We cannot make progress unless we destroy capitalism.”[39]

Against the accusations of Communism, and the assumption that such ideology was incompatible with Republicanism, he cited the example of his long-dead mentor: “Mellows was a great mind. He took the Workers Republic as his guiding line and that is supposed to be a Communist paper.”

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Tom Barry

Opposing him in this line of thinking was Tom Barry, who argued against complicating matters. To him, the reason the Civil War had been lost was because they spent too much time on distractions. “We took social action in 1922/23,” he claimed. “We failed in 1922 because we were dabbling in politics. During the day, officers were politicians – in the evening, they were in charge of Brigades. I want to avoid a repetition of this.”

Just because Mellows had said something did not make it so, Barry argued: “Mellows was not infallible in these important matters. It was simply his opinion. We in 1922 would not accept his suggestions.”[40]

But Barry was in the minority this time, and Mellows in the ascendant from beyond the grave. “Mellows realised that, in 1922, the masses did not understand that we were fighting their fight,” said Seán McCool, a delegate from Donegal. Another attendee spoke of Mellows in the same breath as heroes like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Patrick Pearse.[41]

At the end, O’Donnell’s motion for a social programme to go hand in hand with the IRA’s military goals was passed, the text giving full credit to its inspiration:

That the Convention believes that the draft programme of Liam Mellows provides a plan for the preparations of the armed insurrection and directs the Army Council to outline the manner in which the Army will co-operate with the Workers and small Farmers in their economic struggle while pressing forward with the greatest energy to put the Army in a position to avail of the situation which is developing.[42]

Even Barry was prepared to go along with this shift in strategy, as he was the one to second the motion. In addition, a copy of Mellows’ original 1922 programme was to be printed in the IRA newspaper, An Phoblacht.[43]

Carried away somewhat with his success, O’Donnell proclaimed that, if there was no armed insurrection within the next two years, those present at the convention would have failed in their task. Not for the first or last time, Republican Socialism was to forget to walk before trying to run.[44]

Patriotism and People

In the years to come, O’Donnell lamented what might have been had Mellows lived: “It is a matter of regret that no fuller statement of his views had been secured while there was yet time.”[45]

The extent in which Mellows actually believed in what he wrote, however, besides as a tool to rally support in a life-and-death struggle, is debatable. After all, he had come to such views, as even O’Donnell acknowledged, rather late in the day.

Had the Civil War never happened, if the Anti-Treatyites won early on, or the Treaty been rejected from the start, would Mellows have been nearly as interested in wealth distribution? He talked of the heavy-handedness the Free State was employing towards striking workers but gave no indication that a Republican government would be any more lenient towards dissent.

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Anti-Treaty IRA men on the streets of Dublin, 1922

Certainly, the behaviour of the IRA Executive left much to be desired. When the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty, the Executive had resisted with the threat of arms, until either the offending agreement was dropped or the country dragged back into war with Britain, whether or not anyone else wanted it.

That other people could hold views different to his was a concept Mellows struggled with. Disagreement was treated as the direst of heresy, and even close colleagues were not immune to his censure. When Lynch – in the lead-up to the Civil War – had dared negotiate with the Pro-Treatyites, Mellows helped banish the Chief of Staff and his supporters from the Four Courts, leaving the Executive adrift in confusion until that fateful day on the 28th June 1922, when the Free State artillery boomed against their diminished defences.

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Kathleen Clarke

Mellows criticised his allies for thinking only in military terms, but he was just as obtuse in his dealings with others. At his worst, he could border on solipsistic. Kathleen Clarke found out the hard way just how little her opinion mattered to Mellows, for all her past work, when she visited him and Oscar Traynor – a Dublin IRA officer – in the Four Courts in mid-1922.

To her inquiry about what the Executive intended to do from there, “they gave me no answer, and adopted an air as if it was no business of mine.” She warned them of the inevitable disaster should they continue with their course of action, to which Traynor mumbled something, while Mellows remained aloofly silent. Hurt and annoyed, Clarke left, surprised in particular “by the attitude of Mellows; he knew very well how closely I had worked with the leaders of 1916.”[46]

While Mellows later expressed interest, in his Notes, about utilizing the masses against the Free State, that did not necessarily equate to concern for them besides as assets to be used. Contempt laced his words as he, looking ahead in the event of a Republican victory, anticipated a need for a rationing programme. He was not so naïve to think that a win alone would bring ease to the country, and many luxuries taken for granted, such as tea, sugar and foreign-made flour, would have to be foresworn in the lean times ahead. People would complain but what of it?

As a matter of fact, Ireland suffered nothing (comparatively speaking) either during the Great War or our war. English people (and English women) cheerfully put up with severe deprivations and we Irish think our Cause worth putting up with anything. But do we? Judging by the whines and grumbles, one is tempted sometimes to say “Certainly not”.[47]

Mellows loved the Republic – but then, abstract entities that require nothing beyond what one chooses to give are easy to put on a pedestal. He loved Ireland – while passing through Slievenamon on the train in August 1920, he remarked, with tears in his eyes: “Is not Ireland a lovely spot, is it not worth fighting for and dying for?”[48]

Whether he would have had much patience for the inhabitants of the country he planned to build, however, with their whines and grumbles, is another question.

A Difference in Outlooks

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Ernie O’Malley

Among Mellows’ converts was O’Malley, who was enthused enough about the proposals coming out of Mountjoy to write to the Chief of Staff about them. “I had a note from the QMG [Quartermaster-General, as in Mellows] in which he states that the programme of democratic control adopted by AN DÁIL coincident with Declaration of Independence January 1919 should be translated into something definite,” he told Lynch on the 3rd September 1922. “I will forward some of his suggestions when I get them typed.”[49]

Lynch, however, did not appear in any great hurry to act on these ideas. “Note the suggestion as to Republican Democratic Programme etc.; the moment I consider has not yet arrived for such action,” he replied to O’Malley nine days later, on the 12th September.

While Lynch assured him that “I will give the matter immediate consideration”, for the moment he preferred Mellows’ more practical considerations: “The QMG is right on the necessity of concentrating on Intelligence and Propaganda, leave nothing undone in these matters.”[50]

The Chief of Staff continued with a relaxed attitude towards Mellows’ proposal that they make the 1919 Social Programme their own, as he wrote to O’Malley on the 17th September: “This step I consider not urgent at the moment, but Executive can consider this matter later.”[51]

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Front page of anti-Treay newspaper

Lynch was at least willing to entertain such policy, as he asked O’Malley in another letter on the same day for a copy of the suggested Programme be sent to him. Also, Mellows was to be kept in the loop regarding political and strategic developments, and his opinions on them requested “from time to time, that is if he can fully judge the situation from inside.”[52]

As the slightly condescending tone would indicate, Lynch was not necessarily appreciative of all Mellows had to offer. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch confided in O’Malley a day later, on the 18th September.[53]

The Government of the Republic

Nonetheless, Lynch was willing to go through with one of Mellows’ suggestions: the establishment of a Republican Government. This was done on the second day of the Executive meeting – the first since the Civil War began – in Co. Tipperary, in October 1922, when de Valera was called upon, as the former President of Dáil Éireann:

To form a Government which will preserve the continuity of the Republic. We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic.[54]

With de Valera so empowered, he could select his own Cabinet, with positions for Minister for Home Affairs, Minister of Finance and so on. Word filtered through to Mountjoy that Mellows had been made Minister for Defence, for all the good that did, locked up as he was.

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Éamon de Valera

Nonetheless, it gave his fellow prisoners reason to believe that things were in motion with the situation outside. Mellows, for one, hoped to have fleshed out his newfound ideas into a more coherent policy, ready to engage with the challenges in the country, by the time he was free. For a tunnel was being dug in conjunction with the Anti-Treatyites still at large, who had chosen a house near Mountjoy before setting to work, digging a shaft through the scullery floor, from which to continue on towards the jail.[55]

Meanwhile, the war ground on. Little changed with the formation of the Republican Government – not that there was any reason for a puppet government to make a difference, and a puppet was all it was. Support from the IRA Executive was far from unconditional, however ‘whole-hearted’ it professed to be. Power would remain in the hands of military men like Lynch.

Whether this fell short of Mellows’ aspirations is another question. He had been realistic enough in his writings about the limitation of any such authority for the time being. There was little expectation that this Republican shadow-state was expected to do anything; for Mellows, its role as a counter-measure to the Free State’s so-called Dáil was sufficient, and Lynch had produced at least that much.

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Liam Deasy

As for the economic policies Mellows espoused, nothing was said about them at the Executive meeting nor attempted afterwards. “I know of no alternative policy to present one of fighting we could adopt,” Lynch told Deasy candidly in early September 1922. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy.” Only after the war was over and the Republic established for good would they think about how it was to be run.[56]

Operation Order No. 11

In this, he differed completely from Mellows. But then, Lynch had the power and the other man, while he lingered behind bars, did not. As Robert Brennan had warned Mellows in the Four Courts months previously, it was force that mattered now and nothing else. The rule of the gun was supplanting that of the law, and Mellows was about to discover for himself the grim truth of Brennan’s admonitions.[57]

With the Free State resorting to the shooting of captured Anti-Treatyites, regardless of morals or legalities, Lynch reacted in kind with Operation Order No. 11 on the 30th November 1922. All members of the Free State authorities, whether civilian or military, who had endorsed the execution policy were to be killed on sight.[58]

This fierce new strategy bore the first of its putrid fruit on the 7th December 1922. Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille were leaving the Ormond Hotel for a meeting of the Dáil, in which both men were TDs, and Ó Máille the Deputy Speaker. They were about to drive away in a sidecar when a group of six men stepped forward and opened fire with pistols.

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Seán Hales (left) and Pádraic Ó Máille, just before their shooting

Hales crumpled in his seat, riddled with bullets in the temple, throat, thigh, arm and left lung. On the other side of the carriage, Ó Máille, despite his own wounds in the back and arm, retained enough presence of mind to order the driver to head straight to the nearest hospital, for all the good it did Hales, who died within minutes of arrival.[59]

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Dick Barrett

When the news reached Mountjoy, O’Donnell attempted to commiserate with Dick Barrett, who had known Hales, a fellow Corkman, before the split. Barrett was unsympathetic. “Ah, shag him, why did he join them,” he retorted before storming off, the vehemence catching O’Donnell by surprise.[60]

The Book of Cells

The days inside crawled by, the enforced idleness compelling inmates to improvise on activities. Mellows began a journal, whose title, The Book of Cells, was a pun on the famous Celtic manuscript. Other puns were exchanged between him and O’Donnell, such as one of the former’s: ‘When is a colt not a colt? When it is a forty-five.’

Both men agreed that the humour needed a little work.

At other times, Mellows and O’Donnell competed over satirical pen-pieces of the various Pro-Treatyites for the pages of The Book of Cells. Mellows did one on Eoin MacNeill, so O’Donnell one-upped him with a sketch of Ernest Blythe. When rumours were heard about the Free State’s plans to transport the prisoners to some island, Mellows took this as an inspiration for a short story, ‘Islanditis’, which endeavoured to make the threat seem like more of an exciting adventure.[61]

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Wooden chess-piece, carved by Mellows while in Mountjoy (now in the National Museum of Ireland, https://thecricketbatthatdiedforireland.com/2013/10/12/carved-chessman-liam-mellows-execution-december-1922/)

Other intellectual pursuits of Mellows’ was the setting up of classes and seminars for the prisoners, bereft as they were of any other type of education for the foreseeable future. The topic of one such symposium was ‘Women in Industry – Equal Pay for Equal Work’, which O’Donnell attended on the 7th December, having had a talk of more immediate importance earlier that day with Mellows and Rory O’Connor. The tunnel-in-the-works, their best hope for freedom, had reached to under the exercise yard, O’Donnell learned.

It was only a matter of time.

After the debate on gender equality, O’Donnell strolled about the ground floor of the prison, thinking of nothing in particular, until the wardens ordered their charges back into the cells for the night. First, he stopped by Mellows’ room to tell him a joke he had heard. When McKelvey asked after the cause of the merriment, Mellows turned to repeat it to his cellmate.

“That was the last I saw of him, chuckling softy in the corridor,” O’Donnell remembered.

Blood for Blood

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Paudeen O’Keefe

O’Donnell was briefly disturbed that night by the flash of a light through the door, next to which he had his mattress. Peering through to the corridor beyond, O’Donnell could see one of the wardens, accompanied by the governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, who had a piece of paper in his hand. O’Donnell and his two cellmates strained their ears to listen, but whatever the men outside were doing, they did it too quietly for O’Donnell to understand. After a while, he lost interest and went back to sleep.

It was not until the morning, when in the prison chapel for Mass, that O’Donnell learnt the reason for the governor’s nocturnal visit: he had been waking Mellows, along with O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey, with orders for them to dress and pack their belongings. Unaware of the reasons why, the four men were escorted out of C Wing and to separate rooms, where they were each handed a document, informing them that they were to be shot as a reprisal for Seán Hales.[62]

“I just went wooden. I was completely devoid of all feeling,” O’Donnell described. “I saw men sob and I heard men curse but the whole chapel was detached.”

And detached O’Donnell stayed, sitting numbly in the chapel even when Mass was done, before moving to the sacristy – though he did not remember doing so – where he met Father McMahon, the only one of the prison chaplains who O’Donnell semi-respected. It was only when McMahon told him of the executions, with the reassurance that he had given Mellows absolution, something otherwise denied to the prisoners, that O’Donnell snapped out of his vacantness and rounded angrily on the surprised priest.[63]

Father Pigott

The question of absolution had been a thorny one in Mountjoy ever since the episcopal intervention in the form of the Bishops’ pastoral letter in October 1922, which had brought the Church Hierarchy firmly in favour of the Free State. To O’Donnell and many of the other inmates, the prison chaplains had become another set of enemies to contend with.

“The bishops were leading a clerical faction while [Michael] Collins was leading a lay-faction,” was how O’Donnell put. “The spirit of Cromwell had returned to Ireland and Maynooth was its tabernacle.”[64]

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Archbishop McQuaid

Memories of absolution denied to unrepentant Anti-Treatyites inside prisons such as Mountjoy were still fresh enough for Canon John Pigott to write in the 1960s, at the behest of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, an account of his visit to Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey on the night of their deaths. Of those final hours, “there have been many different and very contradictory accounts of what actually happened.”

Pigott bemoaned how many of these reports “were spread abroad for their propaganda value without any regard for the truth.” In particularly, Pigott was keen to correct the impression that Mellows had gone to his end denied the spiritual comfort of the Last Sacrament:

That lie has been so persistently repeated by a small anti-clerical group that it is possible that a number of our people believe it.

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Rory O’Connor

As Pigott remembered, he was telephoned, between 1 and 2 am on the 8th December, from Mountjoy and told that there were to be executions of some of the prisoners, one of whom, Rory O’Connor, had asked for him. Then a chaplain for the Free State military, Pigott was not the most obvious choice, but he and O’Connor evidently knew each other from before.

In any case, he dressed in time for the car to come and drive him to the prison. Taken first to O’Connor’s cell, he found his friend pale but composed and accepting of his end. He was next asked by Father McMahon to see Mellows, with whom, McMahon explained: “We have not been getting on at all.”

Mellows was clearly going to be a more complex case than O’Connor. Pigott found him to be:

In a strange mood for one who was to die in a few hours. He was obviously agitated and talkative, and I believe, elated that he was going to die for Ireland. He said he had written to his mother, and handing me the letter he said: “Read that”.

Pigott did so, and was shocked to read Mellow informing his mother that he was being denied the sacraments in his final hours. He urged Mellows not to send such a piece and to use the short time left to pray for God’s forbearance. Pigott then withdrew, sensing that nothing would be gained by staying to argue. Father McMahon had apparently tried that already, only to leave Mellows as truculent as ever.

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Letter from Liam Mellows to his mother, in the National Museum of Ireland

Last Rites

Pigott next saw Mellows, with the three other condemned men, shortly afterwards in the chapel. While Father McMahon performed Mass, Pigott stood inside the altar rails, facing the kneeling prisoners while he recited with them the prayers. O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey received the Holy Communion which was to be their Viaticum, but Mellows, Pigott noted with dismay, did not.

Pigott made getting Mellows alone his priority, but time was running out as Mass ran to the length of an hour, and then an hour and a half. When McMahon was at last done, the four were ushered out of the chapel, Mellows at their head, with O’Connor in the rear, accompanied by Pigott.

As the prisoners were blindfolded, en route to the yard, Pigott saw his last chance to ensure Mellows’ spiritual salvation slipping away. Running up to the front of the line, Pigott took the cloth off Mellows’ head and said: “Liam Mellows, you are not going out there without Viaticum.”

“Ah! It’s too late now,” Mellows replied, according to Pigott’s account. “I have held them up all the morning.”

The priest insisted that this was not so, and that there was time yet for him to make his peace with the Almighty. “That he was now ready to do, I had not the slightest doubt,” Pigott remembered, salvation seemingly a question of timing as much as anything.

He took Mellows by the arm, back down the corridor to a room he had seen was open when he passed, while Father McMahon retrieved the sacramental instruments from the chapel. Then McMahon got down to work. Though long-delayed, the Last Rites took only a short while; Mellows, as Pigott put it, “was a deeply religious man, and his fervent prayers at the end had gained him a very special Grace from God.”

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Liam Mellows

As they went to rejoin the others, Mellows took out a small crucifix from his pocket. “I want you to give her this when all is over,” he told Pigott, meaning his mother. “It was out in 1916, too.”

There was one more detail Father Pigott had almost overlooked. As Mellows was being blindfolded again, the priest remembered the letter from before, and asked if he would like to write a few more words in light of his shriven state. Mellows declined, saying: “There is no time now.”

Slan libh

It took a few minutes for Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey to be lined up in the yard, their backs to the wall, before the firing squad. As Father Pigott delivered the Last Absolution, he saw Mellows shuffle the gravel beneath his feet so that he could stand more firmly.

“Slan libh [goodbye], lads,” he said, the crucifix firmly in hand.

In another instant the sign was given: the volley rang out: the men fell, and Canon McMahon and I anointed them where they lay on the ground.

The process had not been flawless, for McKelvey still lived, if barely, requiring one of the two Free State army officers on standby to deliver the coup de grâce. For the other three victims, at least, death had been instantaneous.

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Execution during the Civil War (presumably staged)

It was by then after 9 am, and Father Pigott, who was due to give Mass for the soldiers in Griffith Barracks, had to dash away, late enough as he was. He had reached the outer gate of Mountjoy when he remembered the crucifix, and so doubled back to pick it up from where it had fallen in the yard.

That cross would provide some solace to the priest, as it had to the condemned man, when it fell to Pigott to break the news to the bereaved mother. “Next day, with a heavy heart I called to the door in Mount Shannon Road [the Mellows’ household]. I felt I could never face the ordeal had I not in my pocket that little Crucifix ‘that was out in 1916 too.’”[65]

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The Mellows family home at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

However tragic, Father McMahon, for one, was heartened by how Mellows had not gone to meet His Maker burdened with sin. “I’m sorry for any wrong I have done,” Mellows had said, as the priest relayed to a distraught O’Donnell to comfort him.

In a way, it did. McMahon seems to have missed – though O’Donnell did not – that Mellows had not repented of anything specific, certainly not for his actions against the Free State and all it stood for. To the very end, Mellows had been unwilling to concede an inch.[66]

References

[1] O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011), pp. 91-6

[2] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 284

[3] O’Connor and Connolly, p. 96

[4] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 148

[5] Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 22/06/1922

[6] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 147-54

[7] Fahy, Thomas (BMH / WS 383), pp. 4-5

[8] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 154

[9] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[10] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 26

[11] O’Connor and Connolly, pp. 98-9

[12] Ibid, p. 114

[13] Ibid, p. 99

[14] Ibid, pp. 113-4

[15] Ibid, p. 114

[16] 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. 161

[17] Ibid, p. 111

[18] Ibid, p. 100

[19] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922), p. 21

[20] Ibid, p. 18

[21] Irish Independent, 22/09/1922

[22] Workers’ Republic, 22/07/1922

[23] Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004), p. 3

[24] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 5, 27 ; Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013), p. 31

[25] Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965), p. 17

[26] Irish Independent, 22/09/1922

[27] Mellows, Notes from Mountjoy, p. 17

[28] Greaves, p. 377

[29] Ibid, p. 378

[30] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera, p. 19

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid, p. 23

[35] ‘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’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 231 (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)

[36] O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963), p. 9

[37] Ibid, p. 11

[38] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 213-4

[39] Moss Twomey Papers, P69/187, p. 92

[40] Ibid, p. 108

[41] Ibid, pp. 98-9

[42] Ibid, p. 113

[43] Ibid, p. 116

[44] Ibid, p. 113

[45] O’Donnell, p. 56

[46] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 270

[47] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera, p. 21

[48] O’Donoghue, T. (BMH / WS 1666), p. 13

[49] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 152-3

[50] Ibid, p. 173

[51] Ibid, p. 187

[52] Ibid, p. 191

[53] Ibid, p. 194

[54] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 497

[55] O’Donnell, p. 64

[56] Hopkinson, Michal. Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1988), p. 134

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

[58] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 529

[59] Irish Times, 08/12/1922

[60] O’Donnell, p. 63

[61] Ibid, pp. 41-2

[62] Ibid, pp. 64-7

[63] Ibid, p. 69

[64] Ibid, pp. 36, 38

[65] Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)

[66] O’Donnell, p. 27

Bibliography

Books

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

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

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

Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922)

Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013)

Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004)

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

Hopkinson, Michal. Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1988)

Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965)

O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011)

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and 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, 2012)

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland

Workers’ Republic

Bureau of Military History Statements

Fahy, Thomas, WS 383

O’Donoghue, T., WS 1666

UCD Archives

Moss Twomey Papers

Online Sources

‘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’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)

Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)

Rebel Schismatic: Liam Mellows on the Brink of Conflict, 1922 (Part VII)

A continuation of: Rebel Herald: Liam Mellows and the Opposition to the Treaty, 1922 (Part VI)

The Only Authority Left

Since its armed takeover, on the 14th April 1922, by the anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Four Courts in Dublin had been, in the words of one of its garrison, a “veritable fortress”. Which was appropriate, given that it served as the base for the IRA leadership, the sixteen-strong Executive. As a mark of its importance, the building complex was reinforced with sandbags and barricades in its windows, behind which sentries with rifles and machine-guns watched over the city.

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The Four Courts, Dublin

The overall impression was one of rough, unvarnished power:

Everything concerning it, emanating from it and centring it was purely and principally military; nothing was left to chance, as a military post and general Headquarters…In other words, it was the core, the very essence of IRA activity and of IRA administration.[1]

Entry was strictly limited to those issued with a pass by the garrison command, whether for its soldiers or the odd guest. One of the latter was Robert Brennan, who came sometime in May 1922, in response to an invitation by Liam Mellows, the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive.

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Liam Mellows

They had known each other since 1911, when Brennan had come across a troop of Fianna Éireann boys in Wexford, the one with unusually fair hair catching his attention in particular. When introduced to this golden youth, Brennan found himself “looking into the blue eyes of Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[2]

Such virtues had waned somewhat by the time the two men met again inside the Four Courts, eleven years later. Despite his own rejection of the Treaty, Brennan made clear his disapproval of his fellow Anti-Treatyites and their antics when he turned down Mellows’ offer to be their Director of Publicity.

He could not, Brennan explained, because there was nothing more that publicity could do: they had abandoned all authority save that of the gun and no amount of public relations could hide that unpalatable fact.

Mellows was hurt at the accusation. “The Republic is being undermined,” he replied. “What else could we have done?”

“Possibly nothing,” Brennan said bluntly. “Your job is to get the other fellow to submit or submit yourselves. The time for publicity is passed.”

“Well, we’re going to act.”

“How?”

“By attacking the British.”

“But they are going out.”

“We’ll attack them before they leave.”

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Robert Brennan

When an unimpressed Brennan told him what he thought of that, Mellows insisted: “It’s not as crazy as you think. It’s the only way we can unite the Army.”

In that regards, Mellows had a point. A common foe would certainly do wonders in bringing the sundered comrades together again. But it was a sign of how topsy-turvy the world had become that a man whose efforts to free Ireland of foreign rule had been second to none was now, in all seriousness, suggesting the return of British soldiers for want of any other solution.

When Ernie O’Malley walked in to ask Mellows about the tunnels to be dug for an escape route. Brennan made his excuses and left, more depressed than ever at the insanity unfolding all around him.[3]

Friendly Exchanges

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Éamon de Valera

A glimmer of hope came to a country poised on the brink of fratricidal war when, on the 20th May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera put their names to an agreement. A general election would be held and contested by both their respective factions, but with everyone standing on the same Sinn Féin platform, without reference to the Treaty, either in regard to the candidates’ opinions or for the country in general – the matter being considered too prickly to be grasped just yet.

In truth, it was intended to be an election in name only with the voters doing nothing more than rubber-stamping the names presented to them, but that the two sides could agree on anything at all was heralded as a major breakthrough. Former comrades who had been at each other’s throats now mingled freely inside the National University, as TDs waited for the Dáil session to open so they could give this accord the official seal of approval. Mellows stood with his legs far apart, his hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches while he chatted with Richard Mulcahy.[4]

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The National Concert Hall, Dublin, formerly the National University and the site for the Dáil

After all the gnawing tension, the announcement of this ‘Pact Election’ was “greeted with relief by all of us,” remembered Máire Comerford, a secretary in the Sinn Féin offices:

Everything looked brighter after that…Now, with the Pact, friendly exchanges of arms going in between Free Staters and Republicans…and a conference between the rival armies which had reached the point of agreement, it seemed certain that there would be an agreement.[5]

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Seán Mac Mahon

Mellows took full advantage of this, visiting Beggars Bush barracks to see Seán Mac Mahon, Quartermaster to the Free State forces. Joining him on a number of these visits was Tony Woods, son of Mary Woods, whose home on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, had provided a base for Mellows during his gun-running days as Director of Purchases.

Probably because of his acquaintance with Mellows, Tony Woods had been transferred to his staff and travelled with Mellows to Waterford to help arrange the arms-landing there, via the Frieda, in November 1921. Woods remembered his commanding officer as a “low-sized man with a very high forehead; extremely witty and a great story-teller.”

The purpose of the meetings in Beggars Bush, as with Mellows’ previous duty, was that of weapons. The Free State owned the City of Dortmund, another ship used to smuggle in guns, and it was a sign of the heady new rapprochement that half the shipments went to the Anti-Treatyites while the pro-Treaty IRA kept the rest. Woods was uncertain of the details at the time, but the idea was that these weapons would make their way up to Ulster, where the Northern IRA was still engaged with British forces.

As well as in Beggars Bush, Woods joined his commanding officer for clandestine visits to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to meet a mystery contact of Mellows’. There, they received implements for the purpose of overturning trams to form barricades and listened to some far-fetched scheme to flood the British market with forged pound notes.

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Sir John Rogerson’s Quay today

Though Woods never caught the contact’s name, he suspected he was a Communist, Mellows being open to such company. This put him at odds with his more conservatively-minded peers, for whom Bolshevism and their Catholic faith could never meet, let alone mix. While Mellows was “religious in his own way,” Woods thought, “he nonetheless tended towards socialism.”[6]

Moderates and Extremists

Even as relations between the Pro and Anti-Treatyites began to thaw, those within the IRA Executive conversely took a turn for the worse.

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Liam Lynch

Perhaps it was the lack of a firm guiding hand that caused cracks to form in the Executive. Maybe its components were too strong-minded to ever coexist comfortably with one another. Authority nominally rested in Liam Lynch as their Chief of Staff but, having bucked military discipline once before, it was no great taboo to do so again, and it soon became apparent that different groups were acting on their own volition without consideration for the rest.

“Thus the Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor – a Dublin member of the Executive (and no relation to Rory) – put it, a sigh almost audible in his words. When a number of bank robberies were carried out, Joseph was not even sure if it had been Lynch or Mellows who authorised them.[7]

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Liam Deasy

Another Executive insider, Liam Deasy, was similarly in despair. He was close to Lynch, and it pained him how, for all of his fellow Corkonian’s accomplishments in the fight against Britain, it was “painfully obvious that he was not considered sufficiently extreme by some of his colleagues.”

Deasy characterised these tensions as “a clash between the moderates and the extremists.” He counted Lynch and himself as the former, while identifying Mellows, along with Rory O’Connor and Séumas Robinson, as among the latter. Mellows was at least more personable than O’Connor, but that small mercy did little to alleviate the tensions, the result of which led to:

…many unpleasant incidents reflecting badly on the elected Executive. Worse still it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side.

The hurt and anger are still discernable in Deasy’s words, written years later in his memoirs: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful.”

mulcahy046This policy in question was that, by keeping the anti-Treaty IRA armed and intact, they could push for – or force – a more republican-orientated Constitution for the new government, one without the burden of the Oath of Allegiance that so stuck in many a craw. Not that there was any need to worry, reassured Mulcahy and Michael Collins, for such a constitution was already on the cards. This was good enough for Lynch and Deasy, who “had at the time, no reason to doubt the credibility or integrity of those who had given that promise.”[8]

Which was one of the points on which the ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ on the IRA Executive differed. Todd Andrews became acquainted with Mellows while performing clerical work in the Four Courts as part of its garrison. When Mellows entered his office, where he was working alone, the two struck up a conversation on the state of affairs. Andrews found him to be “a low-sized man with thinning sandy hair and merry blue lively eyes. His whole personality seemed to radiate kindness. He was a dea-dhuine (decent man).”

Andrews was flattered that someone so important would take the time to ask his opinions. When the topic of conversation came to that of their Chief of Staff, the kindness became rather less evident, for it seemed to Andrews that Mellows was “critical of Liam Lynch for placing too much trust in Collins’ and Mulcahy’s good intentions.”[9]

Surprises

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride was unaware of much of this drama, having been in Berlin for the past ten days on Mellows’ behalf. Most of his work in Ireland involved the secretarial side of the IRA, such as the paperwork dealing with the numbers of the various anti-Treaty units throughout the country, but the cosmopolitan 18-year-old (and future politician) was also sent abroad by Mellows on occasion for certain assignments.

This time, it was to contact an arms dealer called Hoover, who the IRA suspected of double-crossing them. MacBride succeeded in convincing Hoover to accompany him back to Ireland for a meeting, set for the morning of the 18th June, the plan being for MacBride to arrest the miscreant then and there. Hoover was none the wiser as they caught the early morning mail-ship to Dublin, where they separated, Hoover heading off to the Shelbourne Hotel while MacBride made his way to the Four Courts.

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Ernie O’Malley

Upon arrival, MacBride availed himself of a wash and some food before chancing upon a flustered Mellows, much to the latter’s relief, for an IRA convention was set to start and no one could find the notes prepared in advance. As MacBride hurried off to help find them, he saw O’Malley, his superior as the Director of Organisation.

O’Malley was only just getting up, having toiled well into the night. He quickly brought his young assistant up to date with recent developments. There had been backroom talks between the heads of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, he explained, about healing the breach and reuniting former brothers-in-arms.

Which was a noble goal in principle. As certain members of the Executive would hold positions on the proposed new Army Council and thus retain some influence, it might even be said to be a good deal. But, in practical terms, such a move would also mean coming under the control of the Free State and all that – specifically the Treaty – entailed.

When these proposals had been put before the IRA Executive, they were voted down by fourteen to four, although it was also agreed for a convention to be summoned, the third in three months. There, the questions could be put to their followers and decided on for good.

“Of course all these things came on me like a bombshell, as when I left the whole Executive was quite united,” MacBride recalled. Clearly, a lot could happen in ten days.

There was no time for MacBride to deal personally with Hoover, whose appointment in the Four Courts was almost due. So he delegated the arrest to someone else, while he tracked down the necessary documents for the convention, to be held in the Mansion House.

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Mansion House, Dublin

It took an hour for MacBride to finish checking the credentials for the various delegates at the door, and then another lengthy period of time as the question of who among the Executive was to be the chairman was discussed – and discussed – and discussed. Such was the tenseness of the atmosphere that even a simple matter as that was anything but. Finally, Joseph O’Connor was chosen for the role and the convention could begin.[10]

Breakup

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Tom Barry

As MacBride remembered – and there would slightly different versions of that event from other attendees – Mellows opened by reading a report on the general state of affairs. When he was done, Tom Barry, the famed guerrilla commander from West Cork, rose to make a proposal. Instead of the one on whether to reunite with the Pro-Treatyites, as many in the hall had been expecting, it was that an ultimatum be delivered to the British Army still stationed in Ireland: withdraw within seven-two hours or face war all over again.

MacBride had been warned beforehand by O’Malley, but most of the others present were caught by surprise. It took another lengthy, drawn-out process, with various speakers chipping in, for it to be generally understood that Barry’s war motion was intended to be an alternative to the reunification one.

In MacBride’s opinion, “it was very foolish of Barry to have put forward such a resolution at the Convention.” While he agreed with what the Corkman was trying to do, “by putting it forward at a Convention without consulting anybody, as he did, was putting those who supported that policy in a very awkward position.”

As if to pour oil on to the fire, Mellows followed up with a “very depressing speech”, which exposed all too “clearly that there was a very big split in the Executive.”

Anyone previously unaware of these festering divisions could be left in no doubt now. On one side was Liam Lynch, the Chief of Staff, who was pushing for the reunification proposals, with the support of Liam Deasy and Seán Moylan. Arrayed against them in favour of a more hard-line approach were Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Tom Bar