“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.
“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.
During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:
At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.
The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.
And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”
This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:
Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.
Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.
“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.
‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’
None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.
“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.
And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.
He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.
Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.
“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”
On the Defence
What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:
It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.
True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”
What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:
Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.
Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”
If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”
It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.
Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”
Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:
Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.
Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”
Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:
…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.
Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.
The Plunkett Convention
Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”
They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.
“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:
In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.
Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.
On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.
“Callous and Disdainful”
Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:
There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…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.
With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.
With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.
Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”
Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”
The Most Important Thing
Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.
“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.
“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”
Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:
This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”
Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:
He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.
With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.
“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.
Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.
At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.
The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:
At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.
However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.
As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:
Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.
Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.
In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.
At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.
He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:
Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.
Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.
Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.
MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:
The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.
As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.
‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’
The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”
And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”
Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.
Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”
Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:
…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.
If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:
It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.
Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”
Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.
A Decision Made
It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.
Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely
I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.
The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”
Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”
The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.
Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.
Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.
This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.
By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:
Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.
The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.
A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.
Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.
“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”
At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.
But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.
The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:
If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.
Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:
The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.
Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.
At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”
The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:
Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.
As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:
Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland!
Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:
Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.
Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.
Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”
Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”
Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.
“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.
The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.
To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.
“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”
It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.
When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.
‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’
The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.
While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”
Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.
Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.
“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”
Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”
Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:
Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.
Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”
‘A Powerful Hold’
Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.
At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”
On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:
The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.
If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.
In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”
Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”
Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.
South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.
The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.
“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:
As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.
The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:
Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. 
No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:
The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?
Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.
As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:
I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.
Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.
Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”
‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’
While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.
The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”
He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:
Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.
But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”
And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.
The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.
As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.
In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.
On the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.
The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.
Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:
We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.
O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.
Lost and Found
Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.
Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.
Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:
A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.
As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:
The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.
Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.
MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.
On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:
The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.
It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:
For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.
But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”
‘A Confusion of Factions’
Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,
Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.
Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.
The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.
For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.
Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.
Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.
Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.
“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.
In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.
More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.
Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“By attacking the British.”
“But they are going out.”
“We’ll attack them before they leave.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
This 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Barry.
MacBride lost track of the proceedings, as speech after speech was delivered, blurring into one. When the war motion was finally put to the vote, MacBride was one of the two tellers. Barry’s proposal was found to have passed by a couple of votes, a razor-thin majority which was immediately challenged on the basis that certain delegates had not been present at the previous convention in May, thus invalidating their contributions. When the objection was upheld, a revote was made, this time resulting in the defeat of Barry’s motion.
This was too much for Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who left the room when the reunification proposals were brought up in turn. With them followed half the remaining participants, including MacBride. He found O’Connor and Mellows conversing outside with Joe McKelvey, a third member of the Executive. Another convention would be held, the trio announced to those who had accompanied them, in the Four Courts the next day.
There was just two further matters to see to, both of which Mellows assigned to MacBride: return to the convention and alert the rest as to what had been said. Also, he was to retrieve Mellows’ hat, left behind in the commotion.
MacBride did so. “There was an absolute stillness and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door. A few more delegates came out.”
Amputation and Isolation
When Joseph O’Connor called in on the Four Courts the following morning, he was barred by the sentry, who pointed to a set of photographs at hand and said he had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone depicted. The faces were those who, like O’Connor, had stayed behind at the convention instead of leaving with the dissenters.
O’Connor was shocked. He had watched for some time, with growing dismay how fissures formed in the Executive, but this exclusion was the final straw. When O’Connor could not even see anyone in charge for an explanation, he turned instead to the rest of the Executive, who had likewise been expelled from their own headquarters.
And so it was a diminished body who gathered at Gardiner’s Row for an uncomfortable session. Lynch, in particular, was outraged but, since there was little any of them could do, it was decided to take no action for the moment. While O’Connor was departing Gardiner’s Row, he came across Mellows, who urged him to return to the Four Courts. Clearly, there were second doubts about the wisdom of such a heavy-handed approach.
As O’Connor was still in a sour mood, it took some persuasion on Mellows’ part for him to agree to meet with the Executive mutineers, who were in the midst of setting up a war council of their own. After O’Connor explained to them at length the lunacy of having two separate anti-Treaty armies in Dublin, concessions were made in the form of Lynch and his adherents being allowed inside the Four Courts again. Lynch had by then resigned as Chief of Staff, with McKelvey taking up the role instead, for what it was worth, as his authority did not extend to anyone other than the occupants of the Four Courts.
It was a peculiar situation. Having witnessed the debacle of the convention, Todd Andrews was so disgusted that he announced to his senior officer, Ernie O’Malley, his intention to resign. O’Malley talked him out of it, but the fact remained, in all its spiteful absurdity, that “the Four Courts garrison had amputated their most powerful limb, effectively isolating themselves in the last bastion of the Republic.”
‘The Straight Road to the Republic’
Two days later, on the 20th June, three or four army lorries drove Mellows, Rory O’Connor and other senior officers from the Four Courts to Bodenstown to mark the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. Ireland, the republican cause and the IRA, whatever the particular faction, may have been in pitiable disarray, but there were still rituals to perform and commemorations to attend.
The day was a dark and muggy one, with an overcast sky, perfectly suited to “suggest the pathetic fallacy to match our gloomy mood,” remembered Andrews, who had joined the pilgrimage. The others huddled around Mellows as he made a speech at Tone’s graveside, full of denunciations of those who were trying to undermine the Republic – and that included anyone, whether Free State or faint-hearts like Lynch who talked the talk while lacking the nerve when it counted.
It was an attitude summed up by MacBride who, unlike Andrews, was in full agreement with such a viewpoint:
It was far better to break off quits from those who were prepared to compromise on such a vital question, that of the control of the Army, and of the working of the Treaty. As in fact they had already done when they acquiesced in the proposals by which the control of the Army was to be given to the Provisional Government.
Far from being a calamity:
It probably would have been even better if such a split had come before, however weakening it might have been; it was far more weakening to have the Army controlled by people, who, although sincere, did not put their heart into it and who still believed their opponents could be trusted in negotiations.
‘The straight road to the Republic’ was how Mellows had explained it to a friend, Frank Robbins, who visited him in the Four Courts the day after its takeover. Robbins had urged him to compromise or else prepare for war, but Mellows had dismissed the possibility of either happening, unable or unwilling to face the looming consequences of his actions, even when they were explained to him.
And perhaps that was his fatal flaw, and the reason he and the others were so daring, and so dogmatic, because, almost to the last hour, none of them truly believed that things would reach the point of war.
A war with Britain, yes, another one would be ideal, as Mellows had explained to Brennan. What better way to bury the hatchet than by planting it inside the skull of a common foe? But a war against fellow Irishmen? Even a precocious young cynic like Andrews assumed the Pro-Treatyites would never go so far as to attack them, however fragmented they were. For this would mean civil war, and such a thing was clearly an impossibility.
“Something would still be done to avoid that contingency,” was how Andrews remembered the thinking at the time. “I never thought it could happen that IRA men would try to kill fellow IRA men.”
Mellows happily sleepwalked into disaster with the rest. In the week before the 28th June 1922, when – to steal a line from W.B. Yeats – ‘all changed, changed utterly’, Mellows sent for Sheila Humphreys, a member of Cumann na mBan who had sheltered IRA leaders like Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha during the War of Independence, back when they were all on the same side. She met him at the home of Mary Woods on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, another republican safe-house for troubled times.
There, Mellows cheerfully outlined to Humphreys how the Pro and anti-Treaty IRA factions had acceded to a policy he had long hoped for: uniting against Britain, specifically British rule in the North. If the enemy would not come to them, then the Fenian Mohammed would go to the imperial mountain.
With that in mind, he instructed her to pick six other women from Cumann na mBan and go with them to Co. Donegal to set up a field hospital in preparation for the operations to come. In addition to first aid equipment, he provided a revolver each for the women, including spare ammunition and explosives.
Some of these had come off the City of Dortmund and shared between the rival parties during the earlier lull in tension. Other firearms from the cargo were still inside the Four Courts by the time of the 28th June, when all hell broke loose. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Woods pointed out that this “will give some idea of the speed with which events moved in the weeks preceding, and how suddenly completely personal relationships came to be broken.”
Over the next few days that led up to the 28th June, events moved with considerable speed, indeed.
A stand-off unfolded on the 26th in South Dublin, as a body of pro-Treaty IRA men rode in on lorries from Beggars Bush to confront the Anti-Treatyites who had held up a garage in Lower Baggot Street. All its cars had already been driven away to the Four Courts, and the anti-Treaty men who remained were in the process of wrecking the garage machinery when their Free State opponents arrived to box them in.
As reported by the Irish Times:
Negotiations were entered into between the leaders of the two parties, and it is understood that the official forces demanded complete evacuation on the part of the raiders and also, it was stated, the return of the “commandeered” cars.
The trapped Anti-Treatyites were given three hours, until 6 pm, to comply. After two and a half, the twenty workmen held prisoner inside were allowed to leave. Soon afterwards, the Pro-Treatyites manoeuvred one of their armoured vehicles to the front of the garage, training its machine-gun on the closed gate, while the rest of the squad positioned themselves for the threatened assault.
As 6 o’clock approached, it looked as if fire would be opened at any minute, but at the stroke of six the gate was opened, and the Beggars Bush forces were admitted.
It appeared that some of the Anti-Treatyites had already absconded via a back entrance. Those still present were detained, though only one was made a prisoner – the commanding officer, Leo Henderson. Despite the non-violent (‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word) resolution, it had been a close thing.
“Indeed,” wrote the Irish Times, “it seemed at one time as if a conflict between the forces of the Provisional Government and certain irregulars was imminent.”
The Four Courts garrison issued a protest to the media at Henderson’s treatment as a common prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. They quickly made their displeasure known in a more direct way when, in a tit-for-tat move, Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was held up while leaving a friend’s house on Leeson Street.
That O’Connell had seen fit to make personal calls, while uniformed and unattended in public, does not suggest that the sense of danger among the Pro-Treatyites was high. But that changed. Contrary to their demands for a full return, only two of the sixteen cars stolen from Lower Baggot Street had been given back and now, with a general of theirs a captive in the Four Courts, a decision was made.
Despite the commotion over Henderson, the talk at the IRA Executive conclave inside the Four Courts, on the 27th June, was about nothing in particular. Even the news that Michael Collins had just returned from London, where he had been castigated for his failure to break the impasse, did little to worry them.
At the end, as Joseph O’Connor made to leave, he was informed by his adjutant that their pro-Treaty opponents in the city had been confined to their barracks, as if in readiness for…something.
When O’Connor passed this on to Liam Lynch, the other man merely said: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.” He added, almost as an afterthought: “You had better tell McKelvey.”
When O’Connor did so, McKelvey at least had the presence of mind to alert the Dublin IRA about the city to stand to until midnight. Mellows chose that moment to invite O’Connor to tea, “being anxious to tell me of IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] activities in having the Treaty accepted.”
That the IRB was at the root of their problems was a conspiracy theory favoured by many of the Anti-Treatyites, including Mellows. Long gone were the days when he had been an active operative for the Brotherhood, on whose behalf he travelled the length of the country to prepare for the Easter Rising.
When O’Connor declined the offer on account of having to be with the rest of the Dubliners, they agreed to meet instead on the following evening. Clearly, neither of them suspected that anything was especially amiss.
That was the last time the pair were to see each other, as O’Connor mournfully recounted:
At four o’clock the following morning the attack on the Courts started and I never saw Mellows again. What a pity, for of all the men on the Executive, he was the one I most loved.
During the previous four months of trouble and anxiety we had become very close friends, in complete sympathy with each other’s national outlook, and I certainly would have liked to have got that story.
O’Connor departed the Four Courts, accompanied by Liam Lynch, with Mellows and most of the other Executive members remaining. By 10 pm of the 27th, the rumours of an impending assault had become definite when a visiting Franciscan friar informed them that Free State soldiers were leaving the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the direction of Dublin.
The lovingly-crafted fantasy world that Mellows had inhabited for the past few weeks, in which everything was fine and all would sort itself out, was about to be rudely intruded.
Suddenly alert to the inadequacy of their defences, neglected during the past few weeks of inactivity, the senior garrison officers hurriedly – and belatedly – consulted each other on what to do.
Always one of the more aggressive among them, O’Malley wanted word sent to the Dublin IRA for them to post snipers over the routes to the Four Courts to stop the Free Staters in their tracks, with preparations to be made for a counter-attack. But McKelvey disagreed on the grounds that they should retain the moral high ground of not casting the first blow. O’Malley, Mellows and Paddy O’Brien, the garrison commander, were exasperated at this indolence, however well-meant, but McKelvey’s motion to hold their ground and do nothing else was carried by the rest of the Executive.
As armoured cars drove up, the Anti-Treatyites were forced to watch impotently from the windows, under orders not to shoot, while enemy soldiers disembarked to cut the wires of the mines planted outside, rendering useless even these token precautions. At least the defenders could busy themselves by erecting more coils of barbed wire, cleaning their guns and checking the ammunition stocks, but otherwise did nothing as more vehicles arrived, the Lancia lorries parking before the gates as if to point out how thoroughly besieged the occupants were becoming.
Under the dome of the rotunda, the leadership met again, with Mellows, McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, O’Malley, O’Brien and others sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Some wanted to escape while they could and join the anti-Treaty units outside the city but Mellows was unsure.
“We don’t know what the country will do,” he pointed out, meaning the other Anti-Treatyites. At last he seemed conscious of the damage their bickering had caused. Even if the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA decided to join them, it might not be in time to make a difference.
“We have created the Four Court situation,” he concluded, according to O’Malley’s recollections. “We should face the responsibility.”
He was seconded by Rory O’Connor. As they represented the Republic, he said, it was only right they stay to defend it, regardless of how poor a strategy that was. Paddy O’Brien protested, urging the Executive to slip away while he and the rest kept the Pro-Treatyites busy, but was once again overruled.
Not so manageable was Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary IRA. To him, staying put like so many eggs in a basket was pure idiocy. After an attempt by Mellows and O’Connor to persuade him otherwise degenerated into a heated row, Robinson stormed off into the night. It was another loss for the Executive, one final split in a movement bedevilled by them.
Still, for some, the glass before them was half-full. As the defenders prepared for the showdown, resigned to a fight many suspected they could not win, Mellows paced the grounds with a rifle slung over his back, finally in his element.
“God, it’s good to feel myself a soldier again after all these futile negotiations,” he told O’Malley, patting the barrel of his gun.
 Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40 ; 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. 199
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 221, 237
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Sitting by an open window on the morning of the 28th June 1922, the yellow lights of the Dublin tramway blurred by the drizzle, the journalist who would publish under the penname ‘Nichevo’ looked outside at the sound of marching boots:
Irish troops were on the move. Down the street they tramped in the misting rain, two long files of them on either side of the road, strapping men and whistling boys, equipped with all the cruel paraphernalia of modern war.
An hour had passed since the journalist had seen the last of the soldiers when the clock struck four and Dublin shook. From the distance could be heard the boom of artillery, punctuated by the snap of rifles and a harsh machine-gun rattle. “The whole city seemed to be alive with noise,” he wrote. “Shots echoed and re-echoed from the dripping walls…The battle for the Four Courts had begun.”
Venturing out in the afternoon, ‘Nichevo’ joined the thick throng of spectators lining the quays, across from the centre of attention. For all their bombast, the 18-pound shells from the National Army artillery had made little impact on the Four Courts, save for a few nicks and dents on the walls. Still, the sight alone was too much for some onlookers to bear in silence.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said one elderly man, leaning over to spit into the Liffey waters.
An End and the Start
The bombardment continued unrelentingly that evening, and all night, and then throughout the following day. News filtered to the crowd that several buildings in nearby Sackville (now O’Connell) Street had also been seized by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with snipers taking up position on rooftops. “Now and then an armoured car would dash through the streets, but one saw very few signs of military activity, although one heard plenty of them.”
One thing ‘Nichevo’ could see was that the Four Courts, a newly blown hole in its flank, could not hold out for much longer. As the odds of the beleaguered defenders lessened, their compatriots elsewhere in the city centre conversely grew bolder, emerging out of cover to grab food, bedding, kitchen utensils and anything else of use for a drawn-out siege.
Things finally grew quiet that night, as if the artillery guns had tired themselves out. Then came the thundering denouement on the morning of the 30th:
An ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin. Compared to this, the booming of the 18-pounder gun had been the merest murmur. Windows were smashed, houses shook from roof to cellar, the sky was darkened with a cloud of flying debris as the Four Courts disappeared into smoke.
A mine had detonated inside the Four Courts. The building complex was left in ruins, along with the resistance of its defenders. Grimy, red-eyed men and boys were led out, some shaken, others grimly contumacious, and escorted by green-coated soldiers towards the Jameson’s Distillery, where they would be held until transferred to Mountjoy Prison.
“It must be all over now,” wrote ‘Nichevo’. While Sackville Street remained a battleground, there was now a lull in the fighting, and a stillness had settled over the city. “Can it be nearing the end? Please God.”
But, as far as some were concerned, it was most certainly not over.
Despite his capture as part of the garrison, Ernie O’Malley was able to slip out with several others through a side-door in the Jameson Distillery. The escapees hurried over the Church Street Bridge and walked along the river until they were opposite the still-smouldering Four Courts, the site of their defiant stand mere hours before.
After pausing to gaze with morbid fascination at the gaping holes and crumbling upper storeys, the party hurried on. The night was spent in a friendly house before they travelled the next morning to Bray, first by tram and then on foot, hoping to link up with their compatriots. Instead they found only to find a smoking ruin in place of its barracks, its anti-Treaty garrison having set the building alight before withdrawing to Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where the rest of the IRA in South Dublin were mustering. O’Malley could not help but sourly wonder where they had been when the Four Courts needed them.
Regardless, he and his party commandeered a motor – carjacking being a common occurrence in Ireland by then – and drove to Blessington. Taking charge as the most senior officer present, O’Malley ordered for the village to be fortified as best it could, with barricades thrown up and mines scattered on the roads leading in. The inhabitants probably did not appreciate the intrusion, but no matter.
The next day, about seventy men from the Tipperary IRA arrived in a ragtag flotilla of char-a-bancs, Crossley tenders and motorcars. Combined, the Dubliners and the newcomers now numbered one hundred and thirty. Equipped with mines and explosives, as well as their firearms, they posed a formidable challenge. At last, O’Malley felt he could take the fight to the enemy.
By midnight, they were driving in a line towards the city centre, until the news that their colleagues had already decided to evacuate their positions in Sackville Street stopped them in their tracks. Crestfallen, the convoy returned to Blessington for the night.
Cutting a Swathe
At least the setback allowed O’Malley time to garner a better sense of the outside situation. Better informed than the Dubliners, the Tipperary men told him that Liam Lynch was currently in Limerick, having resumed the post of IRA Chief of Staff. But this update did not come with any direction on how to proceed, a common complaint among the Anti-Treatyites, many of whom were left floundering in the first few critical days of the war.
But not O’Malley. He had been urging for more aggressive moves from the start, frustrated by what he saw as Lynch’s passivity. Finally free to act, O’Malley decided to take his newfound war-band outside the city in search of easier targets. Once Munster was back under IRA control, he believed, they could then return to Dublin and settle the score.
Leaving some men to hold Blessington, O’Malley drove out with his mixed band of Tipperary émigrés and Dubliners. They approached Carlow, where an attack on the Free State-held town was considered, but that was put aside in favour of pressing on to Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in response to a call for aid.
They arrived at the town to the crack of gunfire as the Pro-Treatyites defended the castle from their IRA besiegers. O’Malley led his warband in blowing a hole in the outer yard gate of the castle with their explosives, followed by the similar demolition of the front entrance, at which point the occupants decided the time had come to wave the white flag. After extracting an oath from the prisoners to fight no more for the Free State, O’Malley allowed them to go free.
The next stop on this martial road trip was Ferns, which also fell without much further ado, followed by Borris in Co. Carlow and then Tullow. While contemplating the next moves to be launched against Carlow and Athy, O’Malley sent word to Limerick, asking Lynch for reinforcements to help attack the remaining Free State holdouts before the enemy could regroup.
“Tis in Vain…”
Had he talked with Séumas Robinson, O’Malley would have known how fruitless such a request would be. The Tipperary men who had arrived to help was only been a fraction of the numbers Robinson, as O/C of the Southern Tipperary Brigade, wanted to send. He had talked with Lynch on the train out of Dublin in the wake of the Four Courts attack, trying his best to persuade the Chief of Staff that the capital was the key to winning.
But Lynch would not hear of it. His orders had been for each of his officers to return to their localities and fight from there. It was in the countryside, Lynch believed, that the war would be decided. Although he did not yet know it, O’Malley was on his own.
Instead of reinforcements, Lynch sent a note on the 10th July, appointing O’Malley to Assistant Chief of Staff. His instructions were to proceed at once to Dublin and organise a staff for himself there, while simultaneously managing the IRA units in Leinster and Ulster. This was a tall order indeed, and O’Malley was momentarily flummoxed before pulling himself together.
“’Tis in vain for soldiers to complain,’ was what Wolfe Tone had written in his diary. It would be a much quoted mantra in the days to come.
That was the last he saw of his Tipperary contingent. Having little taste for the unfamiliarity of urban combat, they elected to return to their home county. O’Malley bore no ill will as he shook their hands and even advised them on the best routes to take. All he felt as he watched them drive off in a swirl of dust and a rumble of engines was a pang of loneliness.
Making a Start
Upon arriving back in his home city – by then under enemy occupation – O’Malley swiftly adjusted from warlord to underground operative. His immediate need was a base from which to build his command, and for this a studio room at the top of a Georgian house was found. Its owner was away on holiday, but when his wife warned of seeing suspicious men lurking outside, O’Malley took the hint to find another place.
He moved into number 36 on the prim and proper Ailesbury Road in leafy Donnybrook, from which to plan the next stage in the war. The home was owned by the sympathetic Ellen Humphreys, who had been hiding ‘on the run’ IRA leaders since the struggle against Britain.
“Surely the Staters would never think that we would have the hardihood to use such a well-known house again,” O’Malley reasoned and, for a time, he was correct.
In keeping with his penchant of hiding in plain sight, O’Malley began dressing as flamboyantly as he could, complete with brilliant ties and a hat festooned with peacock feathers, in order to deter anyone from thinking he was someone with anything to hide. As a finishing touch, he would carry a copy of that most mainstream of newspapers, TheIrish Times, during his daily jaunts as part of his cover as just another harmless citizen. He did, though, keep a revolver secreted on himself just in case, and practised his quick-draw each morning.
A quick learner in counter-surveillance, O’Malley studied the routes he would take for the day, taking care to differentiate. When the number of enemy patrols increased, including armoured cars and plainclothes teams, O’Malley switched from foot to use of a bicycle in the hope that its speed would grant him an increased chance at escape if recognised.
Despite the dangers, he preferred the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting with members of his staff or officers visiting from the country, believing that a written note would not have the same impact. Besides, he did not know many of the men he was supposed to be managing. He might have heard their names or met them briefly, but with no real notion as to their capabilities. Communications with areas outside of Dublin was haphazard, not to mention hazardous, with couriers having to risk hostile territory or friendly areas that had fallen into confusion thanks to the inertia of the months before.
With painful slowness and the steadfast assistance of his staff, O’Malley was able to piece together a picture of the situation he faced, until finally he had something he could report to Lynch about.
O’Malley did his Chief of Staff the courtesy of the unvarnished truth, in that the odds in Dublin were very much not in their favour. Writing to Lynch on the 28th July, he told of how in the city:
Enemy very active and in some cases whole coys [companies] have been picked up. This cannot be prevented, as the men must go to their daily work and there are not sufficient funds on hand to even maintain a strong column.
“We will carry on here as best we can,” O’Malley assured him, “but I am afraid we cannot bring the war home to them very effectively in Dublin.”
At least a flying column had been started, he said, with some operations already under its belt, although O’Malley admitted that he could provide no specifics as he had yet to receive any reports.
Constant enemy sweeps through the city and the arrest of some of his top officers had stifled the rest of the attempted resurgence, moving O’Malley to ask for permission to carry out something ambitious, such as seizing a block of buildings for a day or two before melting away. O’Malley was honest about the slim odds of a successful retreat but surely anything was better than waiting to be picked off?
Showing that he was unafraid to think big, even while in dire straits, O’Malley added that he was arranging for the capture of some leading bigwigs in the Free State. Holding them would present a difficulty, however, and he reached out to Lynch for help: “Could you arrange to look after them if we do not take them?”
If O’Malley was choleric, then Lynch was phlegmatic. The Chief of Staff’s main concern in his letter of reply, written from Co. Cork on the 2nd August, was the safety of his subordinate:
In view of the great activity of the enemy, you and other prominent officers here should take the greatest precautions. I would like to be able to rely on your safety to direct command. Keep people from seeing you – send deputies to interview those who must be seen, and direct things by dispatch.
Similarly, Lynch warned against grand gestures which could only result in the irreplaceable loss of what few men and scant equipment they could still muster. As for any prisoners taken, O’Malley would have to keep them where he was, for the situation in the country was too unsettled to be considered secure.
Instead, O’Malley was to focus on sabotaging wires and telegraph poles in order to better isolate enemy posts from each other. As Lynch explained: “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics.”
The next day, a matter of pressing concern had occurred to the Chief of Staff:
Owing to the abuse of the Tricolour by Free Staters during the present hostilities, it has been decided that the Republican flag, when used by us, will bear the letters ‘I.R.’
There is no indication of any IRA unit effecting such a change. There were presumably more important things to worry about, such as survival.
Another problem worthy of Lynch’s micromanaging was the hostility of the press. “Enemy stuff is very vile and shows the steps they are driven to,” he complained. For a man usually impervious to the opinions of others, he could be quite thin-skinned.
‘We Are in Earnest’
His solution was for O’Malley to murder the editors of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, the two largest newspapers in the country. O’Malley did not go so far as to refuse but, believing that there were worthier targets, he made no effort to implement these particular orders. He pressed for the Cabinet members of the Provisional Government to be targeted instead, but Lynch vetoed that approach on the grounds that the pro-Treaty military posed a more immediate danger.
Hoping to counterbalance enemy propaganda, O’Malley sent a letter to the Irish Independent, on the 19th August, defending the IRA from its media portrayal as made up of “blackguards, brigands, freebooters or ruffians”, and stressing the willingness of the Anti-Treatyites to fight without pay or material gain.
According to O’Malley, only the cause mattered to him and his compatriots: “The Republicans who are engaged in this war are fighting in a just and holy cause – namely, the defence of the Republic to which they have sworn to be faithful.”
Unfortunately, the pent-up frustrations spilled out onto the page of his righteously worded polemic, overwhelming any attempts to sound reasonable. “No vituperation is going to defeat this cause,” O’Malley said, adding petulantly: “The sooner you realise that the better.”
Lynch also pondered the ways in which the republican message could reach a wider audience. “If our activities and operations only could get fair publishing we would get ahead by leaps and bounds,” he mused on the 30th August. At least reports indicated that civilian attitudes were improving towards the IRA and the republican cause in general, which Lynch attributed to the determination on display: “They realise now we are in earnest and mean to fight.”
Still, public opinion “must be nursed a bit”, though Lynch fell short at explaining precisely how. The only suggestion he made on how to garner popular support was to send Count George Plunkett, the father of the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett, to Rome to protest to the Pope at the denunciations from the pulpits by the bishops and priests in Ireland.
Plunkett had previously been dispatched to the Vatican six years ago, just before the Easter Rising, to ensure that the then-Pope Benedict XV did not condemn the rebellion, so the Count made an inspired choice of papal emissary. The idea chimed in with Lynch’s top-down style of management, with the assumption that if one tier of a hostile hierarchy could be neutralised, then the lower ranks would obligingly fall into line.
The war in Dublin had improved little when O’Malley wrote back to his Chief of Staff on the 6th August. He tried to sound cautiously hopeful but came across more as fatalistic: “I have hopes, that is about all: one has to be patient here but certainly the circumstances are most peculiar and it is very difficult to counteract enemy espionage.”
His intelligence officers were hamstrung by being already known to the enemy – yet another unfortunate consequence of fighting former comrades – which made it hard to operate undetected. O’Malley cited one case of information failure when the Beggar’s Bush Barracks was undermanned with only forty Free Staters inside. The news was not forwarded to him until a day and a half later when the opportunity to strike had already passed.
Furthermore, “their propaganda is very insidious and ours is hopeless.”
His mood had not improved much by the time he wrote again: “There is not much to report on at present,” since he was still waiting for the report on the IRA attempt to isolate Dublin three nights ago on the 5th August. O’Malley would not receive this overdue report until the end of the month, by which time he would have been all too aware of the scale of the disaster and the crippling losses suffered by the Dublin IRA.
Fifty-eight men had been captured out of the hundred and forty-six involved, including their commanding officer. They had set out to demolish five canal or railway bridges connecting the city to the surrounding countryside, only to be intercepted and overwhelmed by the enemy. The armoured vehicles and massed machine-gun fire by the National Army were an advantage that the Anti-Treatyites could not hope to resist in a straight fight.
O’Malley’s hopes remained but not even he, it seemed, could take them seriously. In discussing the IRA in South County Dublin: “This area has not gone into working order as yet but I have ‘hopes’ – the usual ones.”
Lynch was of little help in advising on the situation, unsurprisingly so given how he lacked a realistic appraisal of his own. The surprise landings by the National Army in early August along the Cork and Kerry coastlines had thrown the IRA units stationed there into disarray, as Lynch admitted to O’Malley on the 18th August, rendering it impossible for them to focus on any one particular threat.
Yet he announced himself as “thoroughly satisfied with the situation now.” The guerrilla war he had always wanted was about to restart in Cork and Kerry, and Lynch had no doubt that “extensive operations will begin immediately” there. His main concern was with the “lying press propaganda” and the impact that may have on morale, as if the numerous setbacks were merely a case of adverse publicity.
On the 4th September, Lynch again cautioned O’Malley against anything too risky. There was to be no “big operations which only result in failure” – a cutting reference to the botched attempt to demolish the Dublin bridges a month ago.
Despite such failures and Lynch’s admonitions, O’Malley continued to chafe at his leash. Five days after receiving his Chief of Staff’s counsel against oversized operations, O’Malley complained to Liam Deasy, O/C of the First Southern Division, that “we are not going to win this war on purely guerrilla tactics as we did on the last war.”
Taking an enemy post, even a small one, would have a far greater impact than their current pin-prick approach, O’Malley believed.
Dublin remained key since there was not much point making the country ungovernable if the Pro-Treatyites continued to hold the capital. “If we could by means of better armament bring the war home to the Staters in the Capital,” he ruminated to Deasy, “it would have an immense effect on the people here and on the people in surrounding Counties.”
It was significant that O’Malley was telling this to someone other than Lynch. Also notable was how O’Malley was not expecting things to change anytime soon. The Chief of Staff was not one to change his mind once it was made up, and the rest of the Anti-Treatyites would just have to learn to live with that fact.
A numbness was seeping into O’Malley’s reports. In response to Lynch’s condolences on the death in action of his brother, he confessed that “to tell the truth I did not feel his loss much as I did not know him very well.” Still, his younger sibling had been “a good kid and died game.”
Speculations and Futility
Not everyone was as committed as Lynch or as resigned as O’Malley, with some on both sides wondering if there were not alternatives to the squalor and violence around them. Some of these imaginings centred on Michael Collins, whose death on the 22nd August 1922 was a turning point in more ways than one.
Lynch may have hailed it as the beginning of the end, the glimmer of victory at the end of a dark tunnel, but there were others who wistfully considered what might have been. Upon learning of the ambush planned on Collins at Béal na Bláth, Éamon de Valera was heard remarking that it would be a great pity if his adversary was killed as he would only be succeeded by inferior men.
Dan Breen went further. Though prepared to fiercely resist the Free State, along with the rest of the Tipperary IRA, Breen was open-minded enough to lend his services to the cause of peace if the opportunity arose, at least according to himself:
Michael Collins himself appeared to be on the point of attempting to seek a settlement shortly before his death. It has been said that he had announced (privately) his intention of getting in touch with de Valera in an effort to put an end to the conflict.
He did, undoubtedly, get in touch with Dan Breen, who received a message through an intermediary that Collins wanted to meet him. Breen discussed the message with General Liam Lynch and, with his knowledge and approval, set out for Cork to meet Collins.
Unfortunately, the projected meeting never took place…What would have been the outcome of the projected meeting between Breen and Collins is something on which we can only speculate, and such speculation would now be futile.
Overlooking Breen’s irritating tendency to refer to himself in the third person, there are certain hurdles to accepting this account at face value.
For one, while Lynch was certainly aware of the movement towards dialogue emanating from Cork, which he guessed to be a result of Collins’ presence there, he made his disinterest plain to O’Malley: “There can be no negotiations except on the basis of the recognition of the Republic” – which did not leave much room for discussion. The man who Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy believed could act as a moderating influence had turned out to be someone quite different.
Which leaves the last known interaction between Collins and Lynch as a brief correspondence in the press. It was an exchange that only publicly accentuated just how wide the gulf was between the two sides.
At least the People’s Rights Association of Cork had tried. Attempting to act as an honest broker, this group of concerned citizens forwarded to Collins on the 1st August a letter of reply to their own suggestion of peace it had received from Lynch.
“I wish to inform you that when the Provisional Government cease their attack on us, defensive actions on our part can cease,” Lynch had written. “If the Second Dáil, which is the Government of the Republic, or any other elected Assembly, carry on such Government, I see no difficulty as to the allegiance of the Army.”
In an accompanying letter to Lynch’s, the Association asked Collins if he was willing to arrange a ceasefire on the basis suggested by Lynch. The Commander-in-Chief of the National Army did not mince words in his published reply:
The Government has made it fully clear that its desire is to secure obedience to proper authority. When an expression of such obedience comes from irregular leaders I take it there will no longer be any necessity for armed conflict.
“The time for face-saving is passed,” Collins continued, with an air of finality:
Irregular leaders, political and military, got an opportunity of doing this over a period of seven or eight months. The issue now is very clear. The choice is definitely between the return of the British and the irregulars sending in their arms to the People’s Government, to be held in trust for the people.
‘Obedience to proper authority’, ‘sending in their arms’, ‘to be held in trust’ – less likely possibilities for the likes of Lynch and O’Malley could scarcely have been imagined.
“These scarcely need or deserve comment – we are sick of this sort of trash,” Lynch wrote in disgust at the latest ‘peace offers’ that amounted to nothing more than a demand by the enemy for an unconditional surrender.
A Reluctant Foe
Lynch was more concerned about the impact rumours of such talks might have on morale. There was a palpable sigh of exasperation in a letter of his to O’Malley on the 7th September:
So many private and unauthorised individuals are engaged in endeavouring to bring about peace in various terms, and are putting forward so many different proposals that it is necessary to inform all these individuals that the only body on our side competent to consider any proposals or terms submitted to us, or to put forward terms on which Peace may be concluded is the whole Army Executive.
Lynch was nothing if not protective of his prerogatives.
Collins appeared equally determined to resolve the war on his own terms. When Michael Brennan, who had led the Pro-Treatyites to victory in Limerick, talked with his Commander-in-Chief during the latter’s Munster tour, he came away with the distinct impression that Collins was not on a mission of peace.
“At the same time he was very attached to Cork men like Lynch and Deasy and didn’t want to fight them,” Brennan added.
Which may have been true. But, four months into the Civil War, it was clear that, however little Collins wanted to fight his former friends, he was prepared to do just that. With both him and Lynch convinced they were in the right and that the future of their country hung in the balance, neither leader was prepared to back down, ensuring that this was to be a struggle to the death – for the pair of them.
The Master or the Servant
The mentioning of the Second Dáil – the body elected in the 1921 election, before the Treaty was signed and the divisions began – and of elected assemblies in general, was a rare one by Lynch, who thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost. Politics and politicians were things best seen and not heard.
Even dabbling in such distractions could be a cause for suspicion. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch said of the left-leaning Liam Mellows.
But Lynch did not refer to the Dáil for its own sake but as part of a strategy to undermine the fledgling enemy state. The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government had come to that exact conclusion when, alongside Collins’ reply to People’s Rights Association of Cork, it delivered a scathing one of its own in regards to Lynch:
He demands in addition that the Dáil elected in June  should abrogate its sovereignty, ignore the mandate it received and base its policy entirely on the lines dictated by Mr Lynch and his associates in utter disregard of the will of the Irish people: that the army should be the master and not the servant of the people, and that the Government created by the people should be allowed to function only in so far as it obeys the orders of that army.
The desire to ignore the decision given by the Irish people in the June elections accounts for the stress laid upon a further meeting of the Second Dáil.
Which, based on Lynch’s own writings, was an accurate enough assessment of his intentions.
Pacts and Power
The Second Dáil had been the body of public representatives elected in the 1921 July general election. To head off the worsening Treaty divisions, a ‘Pact’ had been agreed by both sides, where the candidates from both factions would stand in the 1922 June election without reference to their Treaty positions.
This would allow, it was hoped, for the united front that had served everyone so well before to be preserved. That Collins had allowed other parties such as Labour and the Farmers Party, both of whom accepted the Treaty, to contest the election was seen by many in the anti-Treaty camp as a “flagrant violation” of the agreement, to quote Dan Breen, who himself had stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate.
It became an article of faith among the Anti-Treatyites that because it was the other side who had broken the Pact, everything that resulted was accordingly their fault. O’Malley put it succinctly in another letter to a newspaper, this time the Freeman’s Journal:
The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation but the wiseacres again, agreed to the Pact when they are weak, broke it when they thought they were strong, and achieved only a catastrophe.
Lynch was of like mind on this. When O’Malley reported back on a meeting with Monsignor John O’Hagan, the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, on the priest’s suggestion of a ‘Coalition Government’ – i.e. one with both Anti and Pro-Treatyites serving together – he was sceptical, believing that military success was just around the corner and which would render the need for any such compromise moot.
But Lynch, more calculating, signalled his consent: “I would consider it alright, as this would bring us to the position which the P.G. dishonoured, i.e. the De Valera-Collins Pact.” Besides, he cannily noted, belying the usual assessment of him as a political naïf, such an arrangement would give them another angle from which to attack the hated Treaty. They only had to win the one time, Lynch explained, for if the “Treaty is once shelved it is shelved forever.”
Otherwise, Lynch spent very little time pondering the intricacies and possibilities of democracy. A question arose at the start of September when Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, urged his Chief of Staff to do something about de Valera.
The former President of the Republic had been noticeably glum in the past month. He had even, according to Moloney, “contemplated taking public action which would ruin us.” Moloney admitted that the military situation had then been less than ideal but now that the wheel had turned, de Valera must be told, in no uncertain terms, to do nothing to embarrass them.
Also needing attention was the question of whether the anti-Treaty TDs elected in the 1922 election should attend the Third Dáil when it finally opened. If not, should their pro-Treaty counterparts be prevented from doing so as well? Not that it mattered too much, in Moloney’s view, since the Third Dáil in itself was an irrelevance.
“Since the ‘Panel Agreement’ was broken, the second Dáil is the only Government of the Republic,” Moloney said – a viewpoint which conveniently meant that there was no government at all, and certainly not one the IRA need kowtow to.
Lynch was to display no strong feelings either way. For all his talk about the Second Dáil as the Government of the Republic or whatnot, he could “see no useful purpose being served at the moment by trying to get the 2nd Dáil together,” as he told O’Malley.
Neither did Lynch see much use in politicians of any ilk, even ones on the same side. “I am not over anxious as to co-operation of Republican Party. Of course they are doing their best,” Lynch added with a touch of condescension. He did not believe that the IRA and their allied politicians had enough in common to be considered republican equals: “The Army has its mind made up to total separation from England; I do not think that can be said of Party.”
Not that Lynch was against the idea of cooperation per se. While he warned O’Malley against “political people” having any control over military propaganda, the IRA could still “accept all the assistance from them which they are prepared to give”, in what Lynch probably considered a generous concession on his part.
Lynch planned to hold a meeting of the IRA Executive as soon as he reached the town of Tipperary. During this, he hoped to form an Army Council, consisting of five or six nominees, which would focus on the military and civil concerns that arose. One such member, Lynch suggested, could be “responsible for availing of the many services which Republican Party can render us.”
Who would be serving who in such an arrangement was left in no doubt. In the meantime, Lynch offered his opinion – not his order, he stressed – that anti-Treaty TDs should not attend the Dáil. It was a weak response, verging on indifferent, that showed just how little importance he placed on the matter.
A Life In Hiding
Confined to his administrative duties in 36 Ailesbury Road, O’Malley did his best to make do. At least he had regular visitors in the form of Seán Dowling, the Director of Operations, and his young assistant, Todd Andrews, both of whom would help with the dispatches for the day.
In the evenings they would escape the paperwork for half an hour of tennis. Dowling had initially objected on the grounds of it being too risky, exposed as they would be in the back garden but, when O’Malley insisted, even the cautious Dowling began to enjoy himself as they played singles or doubles with the addition of Sheila Humphreys, the 23-year old daughter of the family. O’Malley kept a ball in his pocket in case enemy soldiers were sighted, in which case he would escape out of sight by hitting the ball into a neighbouring garden and then climbing over the fence to ‘retrieve’ it until the danger had passed.
Conversation was another pastime with his guests, whether gossiping about the people involved on either side, many of whom were personal acquaintances of his, or discussions on more cerebral topics such as the philosophy of Stoicism. It was a school of thought that had served him well during the War of Independence. As O’Malley recounted those days, Andrews “seemed to detect a note of pride in his accounts of his ability to endure torture and pain. It seemed as if he actually enjoyed his experiences in such situations.”
When Andrews called in one day, he found the normally unflappable O’Malley almost out of his mind with cabin fever. Desperate to get out of the house, he invited Andrews to join him on a trip for a haircut. Not wanting to be seen as cowardly, Andrews reluctantly agreed.
The pair caught a tram to Westmoreland Street, where there was the best barber in town, at least in O’Malley’s opinion. “While we waited our turn my nerves were stretched to breaking point,” remembered Andrews. To his horror, O’Malley was in no hurry to return to his fishbowl life in Ailesbury Road, indulging in not only a haircut but a singe and a shampoo. Mercifully for Andrews, he did go as far as a face massage but, on the way out, O’Malley paused to purchase two large cigars, one of which he handed to his friend.
“It would be difficult to describe a better method of calling attention to ourselves than by smoking large cigars on a sidewalk in the heart of the city,” Andrews bemoaned. That O’Malley was wearing one of his ostentatious hats – a “large off-white woollen cap” – did nothing to soothe his companion. By the time Andrews got away and returned home, he was in a state akin to shock.
Thinking back on his time with O’Malley, he considered the other man to be a victim of circumstances, condemned as he was to a tedious desk job:
…dispensing circulars to what at that time were mainly non-existent units of the IRA and when they existed, rarely receiving a reply. He would have achieved true fulfilment in leading a flying column or commando unit.
O’Malley would not have disagreed. He was uncomfortably aware of the incongruity of his situation, partaking in tennis and tea in suburbia, enjoying regular meals, while out in the hills and streets, his brothers-in-arms were struggling merely to survive. It was an all-too-common disparity, O’Malley knew, for many of his fellow officers were content to sit back as bureaucrats when they should have been out in the field, leading by example.
O’Malley would eventually get his chance to do just.
It was still dark at half seven in the morning of the 4th November when O’Malley was awoken by a knock on his bedroom door by Sheila to let him know that their house was surrounded.
After assuring her that he was alright, O’Malley remained in his room, placing his revolver on his dressing-table where he had also left a safety razor and a hand-grenade. He dressed in the darkness as quickly he could, pulling his trousers and coat over his pyjamas. Struggling to keep his breathing steady, he heard voices, then footsteps moving upstairs and closer.
There was the distant tapping of rifle-ends against the walls as the enemy searched for concealed rooms, like the one at the end of the corridor where O’Malley was waiting. The door to his bedroom had been changed to a wooden clothespress, which could be swung open by means of a spring connected to a wire to pull. This cunning device had been constructed during the War of Independence by a man who – as O’Malley was uncomfortably aware of – had joined the pro-Treaty side.
A rifle-butt knocked on the other side of the dummy clothespress, emitting a hollow sound that distinctly told of a room beyond. More rifles were struck against the wood, splintering it bit by bit. O’Mally was keenly tempted to fire his revolver through the door before dashing out in a blaze of glory but the fear of hitting any of the Humphrey family stayed his hand.
It was not until the partition finally swung open with a heavy crash that O’Malley gave in, firing twice at the first intruder and being rewarded with a cry of pain. Free Staters scrambled to escape as he emerged from his bolthole, shooting again, this time at a motion behind another door in the corridor, hitting Áine O’Rahilly, the sister of Ellen Humphreys, who was staying with them, in the chin.
Ellen appeared to help her sibling back into her room, gallantly assuring O’Malley not to worry. Thoroughly shaken, O’Malley forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. The sound of breaking windows told of how the enemy outside were firing on the house from all directions.
With the grenade in hand, O’Malley stepped downstairs to where he could hear the babble of voices, pulled the pin out and lobbed it at the Free Staters crowding the hall. The men stampeded for the door until the hall was empty save for the unexploded grenade, its cap belatedly revealed as defective, lying in the centre of the floor.
Making the decision to take the fight outdoors to spare his hosts any further danger, O’Malley left through the back and ran around the house, revolver in hand, opening fire at the first green coats he saw. A bullet struck him in the back, and then another to the shoulder, felling him to the previously manicured, now-torn lawn.
He managed to squeeze off more shots but his benumbed hand was only slowly responding to his mental commands. Again, he was hit from behind, but he struggled to his knees, and then on trembling legs. A fourth bullet found him, once more in the back, and he crumbled against the wall of the house.
O’Malley emerged from a red haze to find himself again inside the house, Ellen having managed to drag him there. Lying on his brutalised back, lacking the strength to turn over, he watched dimly as a circle of uniforms surrounded him.
AILESBURY ROAD FIGHT read the Irish Times headline, two days later on the 6th November:
One soldier of the national Army was killed, a prominent leader of the Republicans was seriously wounded when national troops sent to search 36 Ailesbury road.
“In many respects the affair was worthy of the cinema,” noted the article. The Republican leader in question had been driven away under heavy escort in a military ambulance, his condition being described as critical. The write-up he received in the newspaper, whose editor he had held off from assassinating, might at least have given him some satisfaction:
Ernest O’Malley was in charge of the Four Courts during the bombardment, and arranged its surrender. He afterwards escaped while in custody in Jameson’s distillery. He has displayed much activity throughout the country.
Despite the severity of his wounds, O’Malley would live, albeit as a prisoner for the duration of the war. His aforementioned activity had come to an end. Lynch took the loss of his right-hand man phlegmatically. As he promoted Moloney to fill O’Malley’s place in the IRA hierarchy, Lynch said that while the arrest was a serious loss, “he could have been taken at a worse time; it has led to no disorganisation.”
Furthermore, the “splendid fight” of O’Malley’s would serve as a stirring example to the others. If nothing else, Lynch could be relied upon to see any glass as half-full.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p.75
There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.
Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – which had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.
“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”
He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”
To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more, he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.
Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.
Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.
It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that for some, however, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.
A Way Out?
This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:
…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.
Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.
At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.
William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause, and watched as Father Michael O’Flanagan moved across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.
The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.
Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.
Coming to Heel
As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.
O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.
The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.
Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.
According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.
Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.
Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.
O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:
For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.
There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.
However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.
(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.)
The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:
Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.
Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.
Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.
Surveying the Aftermath
In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:
An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting in Dublin.
A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, formerly owned by Patrick Pearse.
A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.
As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:
While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.
The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.
Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.
Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.
To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.
The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.
When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.
And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.
Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.
O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.
Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.
When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”
Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.
The Liberty Clubs
Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.
On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.
Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.
Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.
Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.
Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.
The Clubs Take Root
Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.
Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.
John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”
Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.
Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.
Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.
Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.
Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:
The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.
I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.
I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.
The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:
It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.
The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.
Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.
The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.
He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.
The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.
Efforts towards public unity had been made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.
McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.
Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.
A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.
Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.
Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.
Trouble at Beresford Place
Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”
Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.
Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.
When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.
The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.
As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.
Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.
After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.
Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”
It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.
Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.
‘Hot and Strong’
The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.
So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.
Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:
…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.
Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:
…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.
Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.
Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”
Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.
Walking the Plank
As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.
Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.
It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.
O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.
“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.
“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.
Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.
With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.
By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.
Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.
Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.
It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.
‘A Soldier and a Statesman’
Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.
The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.
This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.
As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:
Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.
Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.
The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.
When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”
The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.
The New Leadership
Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.
The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.
Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.
With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.
Both Griffith ad Plunkett were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with the elections of the former as one of the dual Vice-Presidents (Father O’Flanagan being the other) and the latter to the twenty-four-strong Executive Council. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.
Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.
Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.
Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”
Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).
“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.
Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.
“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.
“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.
“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”
There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.
Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.
The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.
But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.
It did not seem like much, that small article on the fourth page in the Freeman’s Journal for the 15th January 1917, tucked away on the top right-hand corner as if the newspaper was faintly embarrassed by it. Under the headline ROYAL DUBLIN SOCIETY – COUNT PLUNKETT’S MEMBERSHIP, the Society announced its call on the member in question to consider his position:
The Council of the Royal Dublin Society [RDS] intend a meeting to bring forward a resolution calling upon Count Plunkett to resign his membership of the Society. Under the statutes of the Society, if a member fails to comply with such a resolution within fourteen days he ceased to be a member of the society.
Having delivered the message, the Freeman was moved to comment in an editorial on the same page:
We hold no brief for Count Plunkett, but common justice urges us to point out that not only has he never been tried upon any charge, but that no charge has even been preferred against him.
In a moment of panic he was ordered by the Government to remove his residence to England – he was not even interned – but nothing that any fair-minded man could regard as a trial was afforded him. Yet the “non-political” Royal Dublin Society now proposes to pass their sentence upon him.
The newspaper felt strongly enough to reprint the story the following day, accompanied by some strongly-worded letters from its readers. One compared the RDS to the brutish Lieutenant Hepenstall who had helped crush the 1798 Rebellion with wanton torture. Another sarcastically wondered if Plunkett had been accused of pickpocketing in the Society’s reading-room or perhaps of stealing an umbrella. Because otherwise: “It seems atrocious to thus blacken a man’s character, without even mentioning the crime of which he is accused.”
Nonetheless, the RDS pressed on remorselessly with its brand of rough justice. Three hundred of its members arrived at a meeting in Leinster House on the 18th January, making it the largest of its gatherings in many a year. The determination of many of the attendees was evident, as several aged and almost infirm gentlemen pressed on despite needing to be helped out of their motorcars amidst the snow and slush of a winter’s day.
Mindful of the sensitivity of its event, the RDS Council did not admit any representatives from the press. But if they had assumed the meeting would pass by without fuss or challenge, then they had misread the mood of its members, many of whom believed the Count to be the aggrieved party. The excitement of the meeting spilled outwards as messages were hurriedly dispatched to the Kildare Street Club and nearby hotels to find participants who had not yet turned up, as the RDS ‘whips’ began seeking the reinforcements they had not expected to need.
The session inside the Leinster House was to total two hours. The recommendation of the RDS Council, that Plunkett be called upon to resign, was countered with a proposed amendment that the matter be referred back for a further report as to the nature of the charges against the Count, complete with the necessary evidence. Which was the fault-line in the Council’s case – the lack of explanation as to what Plunkett had actually done to merit such blackballing.
All the Chairman of the Council offered was a reminder of how the Count had been arrested and deported to England as a danger to the Realm, in addition to being dismissed from his post as Director of the National Museum. But when the dissenters in the hall clamoured for something more substantial, the Council had nothing to add.
A Storm of Indignation
William Field, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin St Patrick’s, was one of those who spoke up for the absent Count, whose friendship he had known for many years.
George Plunkett, he said, was a gentleman who would never stoop to an unworthy action. If there had been any clear connections between him and the recent insurrection in their city, surely he would have been imprisoned in Frongoch Camp along with the hundreds of others, many of whom had subsequently been released for the lack of evidence in their own cases.
Yes, the three sons of the Count had been involved, with the eldest one executed as a consequence and the other two sentenced to penal servitude. But, Field argued, why single out the father for the deeds of the younger generation?
Field finished on what would be a note more prescient than he could have guessed: he would leave the matter to public opinion, having no doubt that those supporting the amendment to save Plunkett from expulsion would be endorsed by the vast majority of Dublin citizens. It was emblematic of the role Count Plunkett would play later in the year – even without being present, he was a mascot for others’ sense of injustice and their need to respond.
Despite the vigorous defence mounted by Field and a handful of other stalwarts, the Council ended up having its way, and Plunkett was expelled by a vote of 236 to 58. At least the Count and his partisans could take solace in the sympathetic coverage by the Freeman, which guaranteed the story a wider audience than the internal complications of the RDS would normally enjoy.
The Tipperary Board of Guardians, for one, was sufficiently moved to adopt a resolution condemning the “extremely bigoted action” of the RDS, predicting that a “storm of indignation” would occur, not only in Ireland, but throughout America and Australia as well.
As it turned out, while expecting those overseas to take much notice was a hope too far, the Guardians were not wrong in regards to the rest of the country.
It was a sign of how drastically the Count’s circumstances would shift, and the mood of Ireland as a whole, that he and the RDS would be reconciled and he reinstated in 1921. “On that occasion,” to quote one historian, “the society displayed a shrewder sense of timing.”
Meanwhile, plans were underway for an equally dramatic, though perhaps more important, contest in North Roscommon. Its long-time MP, James J. O’Kelly, had died in December after a lengthy illness. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was expected to replace its fallen member with another of its own, and made the first steps in this direction at its convention in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, on the 23rd January. Nominated there was Thomas J. Devine, a well-connected Roscommon native who had already served as a county councillor.
From the IPP’s point of view, Devine was a logical, if not terribly exciting, choice. The only hiccup at the event was the proposal by Father Michael O’Flanagan, the curate for nearby Crossna, that Count Plunkett be selected instead. When this was ruled out of order, the priest left the convention with a dozen other delegates.
One has to wonder the course Irish history might have taken had the IPP agreed to field Plunkett after all, melding their constitutional approach with his connections to the Rising. After all, the Party could already claim its fair share of radicals in the past, such as the land agitator Michael Davitt and the late O’Kelly, a former Fenian.
But the IPP saw no need to try out novelties like running the elderly father of a rebel leader as one of its own. A generous observer might have concluded that the Irish Party was too intent on its hard-fought battle for Home Rule in the corridors of Westminster to be distracted. Critics would have dismissed it as hidebound.
It was, admittedly, a peculiar attempt by Father O’Flanagan. As a Dublin-based art scholar and poet, Plunkett had not the slightest connection with Roscommon. He had dabbled in politics before in a series of brave attempts and doomed endeavours when he stood unsuccessfully for elections, once in Mid-Tyrone (during which he had been punched in the face by an angry mob) and twice in Dublin. He had stood by the side of Charles Stewart Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority stance which had required courage and a willingness to buck orthodoxy that even his friends were surprised by.
But all that had been a long time ago. Yet O’Flanagan had come to the IPP convention with Plunkett in mind, having spoken in support of his man four days earlier at a meeting in Castlerea. What the curate saw in Plunkett, still in exile in England, was not obvious, and it was doubtful that the elderly intellectual would have crossed anyone’s mind if his ejection from the RDS had not been covered in-depth by the newspapers earlier that month. Which did not in itself seem to merit O’Flanagan’s praise of him as the only worthy candidate or the man who would best represent Ireland in the anticipated Peace Conference in Paris when the war in Europe was done.
There had been no mention in Castlerea of any political parties or policies. Speaking alongside Father O’Flanagan was Laurence Ginnell, the MP for North Westmeath, but he was an Independent who had long been a renegade from mainstream Irish politics and his support did not indicate much in itself.
It was not until later that Plunkett was identified with Sinn Féin, where he was described as the party’s candidate by the Freeman in its edition for the 25th January. The candidate himself did not indicate any great desire to be associated with Sinn Féin, however. On his official nomination papers, submitted to the Boyle Courthouse on the 26th January on his behalf (he would not return to Ireland until the 31st), he was marked down as President of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy – two worthy, if distinctly non-political, posts.
Having previously defended the Count’s honour against the RDS, the Freeman was obliged to move against him as the struggle for the North Roscommon by-election intensified. He was, after all, standing against the candidate for the IPP, the party for which the newspaper served as a mouthpiece.
And so, under the headline COUNT PLUNKETT – WHAT IS HIS POLICY? – SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS, the newspaper laid out a series of questions in regard to Count Plunkett:
Was he a member of Sinn Féin or a supporter of its abstentionism policy? If elected, would he take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown as an MP?
Did he approve of the recent Rising in Dublin?
What policy did he propose to adopt in Westminster?
Did he intend to reapply for his former position as Director of the National Museum?
“It will be very interesting,” purred the Freeman, “to learn from him on what platform he stands in the contest, for so far no light whatever has been afforded on to the public on this subject.”
‘An Amiable Old Whig’
The Freeman was not alone in wanting to prise open a chink in the Plunkett armour. Jaspar Tully became the third candidate in what was now a three-way contest for the North Roscommon seat. A local businessman and the former MP for South Leitrim, Tully owned, among other things, the Roscommon Herald. Needless to say, the interview questions that the newspaper posed to its proprietor were distinctly tame, if not prearranged with the candidate.
Nonetheless, the points Tully thought necessary to raise or counter told a good deal about how the Count was perceived, albeit by a rival:
Interviewer: I imagined it was claimed last week that Count Plunkett was the candidate of the Sinn Feiners?
Tully: So it was said in surreptitious whispers at the opening of the contest, but we succeeded in getting to the root of the intrigue, and we discovered that the Dublin Sinn Feiners – or Irish Volunteers as they should be more properly called – had nothing to do with putting forward the Count as candidate. It was the work of this Seven Attorneys League from Tyrone, who are placeholders and seekers of posts under the Government.
Interviewer: What impression did the Count make on his audiences?
Tully: Oh, the very worst. The poor old man was unable to be heard a yard away from where he was speaking, and his mumbled platitudes were quite unintelligible to the people.
Interviewer: I thought he was to represent Ireland at the Peace Conference?
Tully: He could not represent Ireland at even a District Council meeting, as the members would so tire of him that they would not listen to him for half an hour. An amiable old Whig is a correct description of the Count. Then the fact that was brought to light that in the days in which he said he had a nodding acquaintance with Parnell and Davitt, he was touting the Tory Government for the post of Resident Magistrate throws a keen light on the class of man he is.
Interviewer: But then his son was shot by orders of Sir John Maxwell’s courtmartial?
Tully: Quite so; we all have the deepest reverence for the sacrifice he made, but I fail to see how the devotion of the son can change a Tory father into something he never was.
To illustrate his point, the candidate quoted a line that had been bandied about in Roscommon during the Land League days: ‘Many a good son reared a bad father.’
“As Count Plunkett’s party are trading altogether on this question of the poor boy that died,” Tully continued, referring to the executed Joseph Mary Plunkett, “it should be known widely that so did the father and son differ long before Easter Week that the son did not live with him and had to live in a place for himself.
There was much more of a similar sort throughout the Herald in its lead up to polling day. As an Independent, Tully was also competing against the IPP runner. The fact that Tully focused the bulk of his personal jabs against Plunkett and not Devine made for a backhanded compliment, a salute to the danger that the “poor old man” was perceived to truly be.
Much of Tully’s attacks could be dismissed as part of the electioneering game. After all, while Joseph did indeed leave the family house at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the rest of Plunketts, including his father, proceeded to move in with him on their property in Larkfield. As for the Count’s supposed inability to articulate, Tully and his pet newspaper had been the only ones to suggest such a thing.
(The journalist M. J. MacManus, who heard Count Plunkett speak at the by-election, remembered his “level, cultured tones.” While it was perhaps “the voice of a man who was more used to addressing the members of a learned society than to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings,” Plunkett seemed to manage his share of the public oratory well enough.)
Yet both the Freeman and Tully had, in their different styles, touched upon a sensitive question for the Plunkett campaign: that of abstentionism. While Sinn Féin was canvassing for the Count in North Roscommon, so too were others, including the Irish Nation League – the ‘Seven Attorneys League’ mentioned by Tully – an anti-Partition group formed recently in Ulster. The former organisation opposed taking seats in Westminster, while the latter did not. So where, between them, did the Count stand?
As well as Plunkett’s commitments to Sinn Féin, it was also questioned how committed was Sinn Féin to him. According to Laurence Nugent, a worker during the campaign, the party not only refused to support the Count at first but did everything it could to stop him from standing.
Another election activist, Kevin O’Shiel, told of a more nuanced reaction by Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin’s founder. To any who asked, Griffith’s response was: “If Plunkett goes for Roscommon, all nationalists should support him.” In private, however, Griffith was distinctly cool towards a candidate he knew so little about.
This uncertainty permeated the rest of Griffith’s organisation. Seamus Ua Caomhanaigh was an accountant on the Sinn Féin Executive when a man named Gallagher called in to see him in Dublin. Count Plunkett’s name had just appeared in the papers in connection with the by-election, and Gallagher, a native of Roscommon, wished to ensure that the candidate was “all right from the Sinn Féin point of view” before granting his support. Ua Caomhanaigh replied that, as far as he knew, the Count was indeed alright but first he would have to seek clarification from party headquarters.
Others were quick to grasp the potential of the Count as political horseflesh. The trade unionist William O’Brien was talking with P.T. Keoghane, managing director of Gill Publishers, who he knew from the board of the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Funds. The conversation took place in early January, before Plunkett’s candidacy became common knowledge:
Keoghane: What do you think about fighting North Roscommon?
O’Brien: Well, there are enough obstacles.
Keoghane: What are they?
O’Brien: Well, in the first place, money. I don’t know anybody who has any.
Keoghane: Apart from money, what are the objections?
O’Brien: Well, you want a suitable candidate and you want a programme.
Keoghane: As regards a candidate, what would you say to Count Plunkett?
O’Brien: I think he would be excellent because he would not require any programme. All you need do is introduce him as the father of Joseph Plunkett, who was executed in Easter Week.
O’Brien had first met Count Plunkett inside Richmond Barracks following the collapse of the Rising. Both men had played supporting roles in the build-up to the insurrection and were subsequently detained (O’Brien was not released until August 1916). Despite their shared experience, O’Brien did not think of the Count as much of a Nationalist, which did not stop him from approving of the other man as a candidate.
His account of the conversation with Keoghane – perhaps written with the benefit of hindsight – neatly captured the central plank of the Plunkett campaign: who the candidate was being less important than what he represented in a post-1916 Ireland.
This is Going to Cost Money
While others sought to make sense of what was happening, Nugent had proceeded from Dublin to North Roscommon. Besides Nugent’s own lack of experience, the challenges he found were formidable: there was barely any organisation on behalf of the Count, and what funds there were had been donated by friends of Father O’Flanagan to help cover the curate’s expenses.
Nugent had discussed the matter at length with Rory O’Connor, a close ally of Plunkett’s, but the only advice O’Connor could give was “Do what you think is right.” The few forlorn Plunkettites Nugent met in the local Sinn Féin circles knew all too well that they could not expect any assistance from the rest of their party. They had not even known that Nugent was coming.
Meanwhile, having heard no more about North Roscommon, O’Brien assumed the election was going well. He was, in any case, busy with his work for the Dublin Trades Council, of which he was secretary. At one of its meetings, he was taken aside by the vice-president, Thomas Farren, and introduced to Kitty O’Doherty, wife of the Plunkettite director of elections. She broke the troubling news that the campaign was at the point of collapse. While they had plenty of helping hands from the Roscommon youth, none of them knew what they were supposed to be doing.
Stirred into action, O’Brien and Farren went straight to the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street. When they saw him, he had no collar or tie on, and was in the process of undressing when his visitors came. O’Brien relayed what he had just been told, not that Plunkett seemed very interested.
(O’Brien was unaware, but the Count had only just returned from his English exile, having ignored his probation to stay in Oxford. Tiredness would explain his apparent apathy.)
Plunkett did, at least, ask what should be done. O’Brien suggested sending out to Roscommon a couple of experienced workers from Dublin. The Count seemed to perk up at this:
Plunkett: Do you think these men could be got?
O’Brien: I do not know for sure, but I think so. Do you authorise me to see them?
Plunkett: Yes, certainly.
At this point, Farren nudged O’Brien and made a point of asking if he had any money. The Count took the hint:
Plunkett: Well, who is going to pay for all this?
O’Brien: Count, this is going to cost money.
Plunkett: All I have is £5, you can have it.
O’Brien: Very well, I will take it.
O’Brien thought Plunkett had been anticipating the question, for he took out the aforementioned fiver from his pocket and handed it over. Having only just come back from banishment would also explain the Count’s shortage of ready cash.
Blood from the Lips
For all the doubts and confusion, the nominations of the three candidates on the 26th January had made Plunkett’s standing at least official. Four days later, an appeal for motorcars to assist in the canvassing was issued from the Plunkett residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street. The Count would not return home from England until the following day on the 31st, so the appeal was probably made by O’Connor, who was using the house for his own work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers.
The deep snow in North Roscommon made travelling a challenge but the summoned cars got there all the same, giving the Plunkettites a small fleet of vehicles to match the IPP’s own. The campaign was starting to take shape.
Nugent’s wife arrived on the 31st January, a day before the Count was due in North Roscommon. She relayed a message from O’Connor, giving her husband their candidate’s itinerary, as well as instructions to meet the Count at Dromod Station, in Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon.
When Nugent did so, he explained to Plunkett the progress of his campaign, stressing “upon him the certainty of victory. [Plunkett] was rather bewildered as it was not easy to believe these statements unless one saw it for themselves.”
The Count was able to see it for himself when he continued to his last stop at Carrick-on-Shannon station, where he was greeted a huge crowd. These well-wishers formed a procession to accompany him across the bridge into Roscommon, where Father O’Flanagan was waiting.
Despite days of speaking in the icy cold, the priest remained unflinching, even when his lips broke and blood flowed freely down his jaw as he addressed the crowd. Count Plunkett spoke next in those level, cultured tones of his and, while he could not compete with a practised demagogue like O’Flanagan, he made, in Nugent’s estimate, “a great impression on his listeners.” By the time the rally was done, the previously befuddled candidate had been infused with a new sense of purpose.
However much of an enigma the Count presented to friend and foe alike, that did not prevent the electorate of North Roscommon from voting him in by a landslide. Stationed at the polling booth in Rooskey, Nugent saw men vying with each other for the honour of being the first to cast a vote for Plunkett. They joked that as Roscommon had seen no action during Easter Week, they would make up for it by firing their ‘shot’ into the ballot box.
Monsignor Michael J. Curran, secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin and a keen observer of Irish politics, recorded in his diary at the time:
Rarely has there been so much excitement over an election result. Count Plunkett started at the eleventh hour with little local backing…Though his supporters had hopes of his success, they never for a moment dreamed of such a resounding victory.
Up to Saturday, the Irish Party believed that they were winning. The news of the success astounded and delighted the ‘man in the street’…Count Plunkett’s success was entirely due to his own banishment, to the memory of his son, Joseph, and the imprisonment of two others.
“Doubtless, too,” the Monsignor added wryly, “he was helped by his expulsion from the Royal Dublin Society.” Curran, like O’Brien, clearly did not attribute Plunkett’s victory to his own qualities. Perceptively, Curran also made note of how the issue of an Irish republic, as distinct from straightforward independence, was absent during the election.
(This omission – or flexibility, depending on one’s perspective – would be cited by none other than Michael Collins, one of the many Young Turks who would cut their teeth working on the Plunkett campaign. A few years later, in the course of the Civil War, Collins was to argue that the example of North Roscommon proved how “absence of key principles was not incompatible with the strength of national feeling.”)
Count Plunkett returned to a hero’s welcome in Dublin on the 6th February, three days after his stunning victory. A large crowd had been waiting at Broadstone Station and cheered upon the arrival of his train, with hearty cries of “Up Roscommon!” and “Up the rebels!”
Upon disembarking, the Count was carried out of the station on the shoulders of his supporters to where a crowd – estimated by the Irish Times to be in the thousands – had assembled with much singing, cheering and shouting. Plunkett obliged the onlookers with a short address which was frequently applauded. When that was done, the people accompanied their hero as he was driven in a taxi-cab through the city centre, albeit slowly amongst the press of bodies, to his stop at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.
Plunkett had only just entered the building when the apparently insatiable masses outside called for another speech. In response, the newly-minted MP appeared at a window on the first floor. As a tricolour was waved beside the Count in a suitably dramatic fashion, he indulged his adoring followers.
An Alternative Parliament for a Free People
He had come back, he told them, with a message for the city. A blow had been struck for Ireland and he would ask his fellow citizens, many of whom would recall his efforts to be elected for St Stephen’s Ward some twenty years ago – though it was questionable as to how many actually did remember an event two decades past – to ensure that their public representatives would no longer be beholden by the false need to wait upon an alien parliament in Westminster.
When he had travelled down to Roscommon, his chances of success had seemed very slim indeed. A local man there who owned a newspaper – Plunkett did not deign to name Tully who had so insulted him – had had it said that he, Count Plunkett, was a feeble old man with no work left to give for Ireland. As for the other losing candidate, a very respectable townsman of whom Plunkett would never say anything unkind, he had had behind him the full machinery of the Irish Party. What had been the result?
“You are in,” answered a voice from the crowd below to appreciative cheers.
Roscommon had arisen, the Count continued, and had swept his opponents away. Irishmen should see that in the future their leaders would be the soul of the nation. For that to happen, it was necessary to carry on with the work already begun until the whole of Ireland’s representatives were pledged to serve in Ireland and nowhere else; until, indeed, enough men were elected to form an alternative parliament for a free people. And at this, Plunkett finally withdrew into his house for some well-deserved rest.
The Sinn Féin Candidate?
All this talk of abstaining from Westminster in favour of an Irish counter-parliament was straight out of the Sinn Féin playbook. Griffith had long expounded upon the need for such an assembly, one wholly divorced from any foreign system.
Plunkett was something of a late convert to this ideal. There is certainly nothing in his history to suggest he had been anything other than a conventional parliamentarian. His election director in Roscommon went as far as to interview him beforehand to ensure he was standing on an abstentionism platform but others in the Sinn Féin camp were not so convinced that Plunkett was one of them even while they campaigned on his behalf.
Either way, the Count quickly made his mind known. In North Roscommon, he had announced in his acceptance speech that he would not be taking his seat in the House of Commons, causing “a mild form of consternation” amongst those who had only just voted for him and were not expecting their new MP to be quite so…different to the usual. Any doubts as to what he had said were cleared up when he arrived back to Dublin and spoke to the crowd outside his home.
At no point did Plunkett acknowledge Griffith as the originator of the abstentionism policy. To hear the Count talk, one would have thought he had come up with the stance entirely on his own volition.
“It is a true fact that the greatest swordsman in Italy would not fear the second greatest but would fear the worst, for that one would be unpredictable” – The Masque of Red Death (1964)
A Simple Soul
Towards noon on Easter Monday 1916, Monsignor Michael J. Curran received word that Count George Plunkett was waiting outside his office. Guessing that this would be about some new development in the unfolding, but so far still uncertain, situation in Dublin, Monsignor Curran agreed to see him.
Five minutes later, Curran was sitting with the Count, grey-haired and bearded. His caller asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, to whom Curran was secretary. Curran replied that His Grace was ill in bed and not to receive anyone except his doctor.
Which was not entirely true but the Monsignor’s duties included acting as gatekeeper to his master. Things were tense enough as it was, what with the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry, the planned mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers and the abrupt countermanding orders by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.
“Well,” said the Count, according to Curran’s recollections, “it is not necessary that I see him personally but, if you would tell him, it would be alright.”
Plunkett proceeded to inform Curran that there was going to be an uprising in Ireland and that he had already visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome to inform him of such. His Holiness had been asked not to be shocked or alarmed as the rebellion was to be purely in pursuit of the same independence that every country was entitled to. The Count had then asked for the Pontiff’s blessing for the endeavour.
Monsignor Curran was still listening to the story when the telephone rang in his office. Curran answered it to learn that the General Post Office (GPO) had just been seized and occupied by the Irish Volunteers. He returned to inform his visitor that the uprising the latter had warned about was already underway. Curran would later consider it noteworthy that Plunkett had come to him on the day the rebellion began and not before, presumably to leave no window of opportunity for the Archbishop to change anyone’s mind.
Once his visitor had left, Curran hurried to relay what had occurred to his superior. Even after being told the Count’s message, Walsh was more concerned about what MacNeill, rather than Plunkett, might do, looking upon the Count as less of a leader and more “as a simple soul and [he] could not conceive a man like him being at the head of a revolution.”
A Conservative Catholic Gentleman
The Archbishop’s scepticism was understandable, considering how the Count had never shown a radical bone in his body. As far as many were concerned, he was simply:
…a conservative Catholic gentleman with harmless literary and cultural tastes which his job as Director of the National Gallery (bestowed on him by the Liberal Government) gave him ample time and opportunity to indulge in.
This, at least, was the view of the political activist Kevin O’Shiel. It was not an altogether wrong one, though O’Shiel was incorrect about the Gallery. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had been offered its directorship by Dublin Castle in the spring of 1916 on the condition that his family stay out of politics but he defiantly turned it down (being already the director of the National Museum, which was probably what O’Shiel meant).
Similar sentiments were expressed by William O’Brien, a trade unionist who had been closely involved in the planning of the Rising. O’Brien knew very little about Plunkett by the time the latter grew in prominence in early 1917, only that he had previously only seen his name “in connection with various projects supported by people of the Unionist type.” Whatever else about the Count, O’Brien certainly did not think of him as much of a Nationalist.
In fact, the Count had had a reasonably active time in politics as a Nationalist, and an honourable one at that. This tended to be overlooked, much like how Walsh, O’Shiel and O’Brien were content to discount the man in general. And yet, for a while, it looked as if the post-Rising upheaval would be regarded as the Plunkett Revolution.
Born in 1851 as a privileged scion of an illustrious name (the 17th century St. Oliver Plunkett was an ancestor), George Noble Plunkett was sent abroad to a Jesuit school in Nice at the age of six. The reason for this was to protect his health and, as he was the only one of his three siblings to survive to adulthood, this may have been a wise precaution.
Recently ceded to France by Italy, Nice was at a cultural crossroads, and there young George grew up fluent in French, Italian and Niçoise. George, according to a flattering write-up in the Catholic Bulletin, was sufficiently immersed in such a cosmopolitan environment to temporarily forget English but he remained, nonetheless, “in feeling intensely Irish.”
This may be a slight exaggeration as he was not to return to Ireland until 1862, aged eleven. Afterwards, though, he would have ample opportunity to show the intensity of these Irish feelings of his.
Even at an early age, his passion for art, literature and other forms of high culture was evident. He became a regular visitor to various art galleries in Europe, and collected a string of presidencies or vice-presidencies at societies such as the Academy of Christian Science, the Royal Irish Academy and the Society of Catholic Poetry.
George soon developed a system on how best to explore a gallery: (1) a visit should never last more than two hours, for past that and mental fatigue sets in, (2) always focus on the best pieces even to the exclusion of the rest (advice he was happy to pass on to anyone interested).
George made his mark on the literary scene when he published a collection of his poetry, God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems in 1877. Many of the poem titles – such as ‘Ave Maria’, ‘The Sleep of the Infant Jesus’ and ‘An Orphan’s Prayer to the Blessed Virgin’ – display a distinctly Catholic sensibility, with the occasional foray into Irish nationalism, such as in ‘To Ireland’, where he laments the subject’s history:
Upon reviewing some later poems of Plunkett’s in 1921, the novelist Katherine Tynan summed up the main themes as “two strains – God and Ireland, sometimes single, oftener intermingled.” As Plunkett was then prominently involved in Irish politics, Tyan could not resist making the connection: “In a sense, such poetry…bears witness for Sinn Fein. That the singer of these noble numbers should be of the movement is eloquent.”
One could debate the quality of the poems and perhaps compare them unfavourably to that of his eldest son’s, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose works, such as ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’ and ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight’, are still recited today. George Plunkett’s efforts, on the other hand, have almost entirely receded from public consciousness. As a literary man, his legacy can perhaps be felt through that of Joseph’s, who followed in his father’s footsteps in his ambition to be a poet.
Taste and Scholarship
George did not hoard his talents to himself. From 1883 to 1884, he was editor of the Hibernia, a literary journal with a good deal of, in Tynan’s opinion, “taste and scholarship.” As a budding writer herself, Tynan had contributed a couple of her poems. That the Hibernia, alas, did not last long, Tynan attributed to it being “too bookish” for the philistines of Dublin (she remained friends with Plunkett, with him donating a few books for her shelves, and later sent a cheque for copies of her first publication).
He had by then married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Cranny (who went by her middle name), in 1884. A fruitful union, the couple went on to produce seven children – four girls and three boys. Their two families had worked closely for years, becoming rich in property together. As a sign of how little money was a concern, George and Josephine were set up a year after their wedding in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the residence having been bought, furnished and decorated by the former’s father.
George could be equally generous with others. The nuns of the Little Company of Mary had been asked by Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to set up a centre in Rome. George happened to be there at the time and in a position to assist with the purchasing and refurbishment of the new convent.
He was rewarded a year later with the title of Papal Count. It was, apparently, something of a “source of great embarrassment and annoyance to him… as an ardent Nationalist he did not like being mistaken for some kind of English or Continental aristocrat” (Josephine, on the other hand, was delighted to be addressed as Countess by friends and servants alike). It was not until he was requested by the Vatican to use the title, and from then on, he was Count Plunkett to the world.
That is, at least, according to his daughter Geraldine, who left a memoir that is revealing in its depiction of the Plunkett home life but also problematic due to her naked prejudices. She adored her father and loathed her mother, and it is thus not surprising that her reminisces frequently leaned in favour of one parent at the expense of the other.
For one, Geraldine overlooked how her father was capable of stubborn streaks throughout his life, and it is unlikely that even the Holy Father could have forced him into bearing a title he did not want (he was not above using it for political point-scoring, though – when a rival Nationalist sneered at the title, Plunkett retorted that since it had been awarded by the Pope, any slight on the title was thus a slur against the Vicar of Christ).
Secondly, Geraldine’s depiction of her mother as an insufferable, tight-fisted harridan does not necessarily chime with that of others’. The future Fianna Fáil minister, Todd Andrews, was a regular visitor to the family house after the Civil War, and found the Countess to be “a kind and humorous woman who could laugh at her own oddities.”
But then, Andrews did not have to live with her. George came out of his study one time to find his wife beating their daughter Moya mercilessly with her fists in the hallway, the crime of the wretched girl being to ask her miserly mother to buy her sister Fiona a coat for the winter.
As told by Geraldine, ‘Pa’ Plunkett somehow interpreted the scene as Moya attacking the Countess instead of vice versa, and began thrashing Moya with his walking-stick. Joseph intervened to snatch the stick away and break it over his knee:
Ma took this as a personal insult and redoubled her screaming. Joe comforted Moya while Pa, realising his mistake, stood helplessly patting her on the head to show he was sorry. By the time I came in, Pa had retreated to the study, Ma to the dining-room, and Joe was still trying to comfort poor Moya.
At least Fiona ended up with a new winter-coat after all that.
“You must remember that Mammy is only a little girl,” Plunkett told Geraldine by way of explanation after the latest fight with her mother.An indulgent parent, more a friend than an authority figure to his children, Count Plunkett preferred to avoid household drama – Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett would have understood.
One Missing Plank
One source of drama which Count Plunkett did display an interest in was politics; unfortunately, those already in politics did not reciprocate with an interest in him. He wrote to T.D. Sullivan, the Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP), in 1885, asking to be proposed for the Irish National League of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose words Plunkett quoted about how the national platform lacked but “one plank” – with himself presumably being that missing plank.
If Plunkett had been hoping to ingratiate himself with Parnell’s colleagues, then he was in for a rude awakening. Sullivan’s reply could not have been more condescending. Plunkett, he wrote back, must have taken the line about the plank too literally. “It seems to me,” Sullivan continued, “that if that be so, your joining the League might possibly some day bring disappointment to you, and I would not like to be party thereto.”
The main barrier to Plunkett was his hostility towards the Land League, by then supressed and to which the National League was intended to replace, focusing this time on the issue of Home Rule rather than of land distribution like before. Plunkett’s attitude towards the Land League still rankled with Sullivan: “I can well remember how bitterly opposed you were.”
Academic debates, Sullivan warned, were not enough to win Home Rule – which sums up what he thought of the other man’s style. Also, Home Rule would not be the sole focus of the new League. With the issues of land unresolved and requiring their full attention for the moment, Sullivan took “the liberty of suggesting that you should very well consider your course before ‘casting your lot,’ as the saying is, with the leaders of the National League.”
Although stonewalled from politics, Plunkett could not avoid being affected by the ‘Divorce Crisis’ in 1890, which saw Parnell exposed as an adulterer and a political liability. Most of his allies deserted him, including the caustic T.D. Sullivan; one who did not was George Plunkett.
That the Count would stand by the stricken statesman surprised even the former’s friend, Tynan, who saw him as “one of those trusted Catholic laymen who represented the best and most orthodox Catholic feeling of Dublin” – in other words, a very conventional man. Yet he was prepared to go against the tide when he felt it necessary, a fact that impressed Tynan. Together, they endured the “obloquy, the unjust condemnation, the wrongs”, as she put it, from the Anti-Parnellites (while such words may strike the modern reader as excessively dramatic, events in Mid-Tyrone would show them to be, if anything, understated).
Such unjust obloquy did much to toughen up the Count. In a letter to John Redmond in 1895, Plunkett advised his fellow Parnellite on the best ways to deal with power-brokering clerics such as Dr William Walsh. Redmond was feuding with the Archbishop over stories unflattering to the Church that had appeared in newspapers controlled by the politician. Due to past experience teaching him to “neither fear nor despise the clergy,” Plunkett advised Redmond to moderate such stories, which would hopefully persuade the Archbishop to side with them against their Anti-Parnell rivals.
Such talk sat oddly with his public proofs of piety – in addition to the papal counthood, he amassed an impressive set of papal medals: the Cross of Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, the Grand Cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Cross of the Order of the Advocates of St Peter, and two medals of the Cross of St John of Lateran for him and his wife.
But then, as indicated by his earlier defence of Parnell in the teeth of clerical condemnation – and how his visit to Rome on the eve of the Easter Rising would show – Count Plunkett was quite capable of following his own mind, even where Holy Mother Church was concerned.
Plunkett stayed loyal to Parnell to the end, the latter dropping in to see him before leaving for England in 1891. Unfortunately, the Count was out of the house at the time. After waiting for a long while, Parnell left, saying only as he departed: “Perhaps it is just as well.” He died shortly afterwards. Plunkett, who was already upset at having missed Parnell, mourned him deeply.
From then on, the Count took a more active role in politics, albeit with mixed results. In the 1892 general election, he stood as the Parnellite candidate for Mid-Tyrone, the sundered Irish National League no longer able to be quite so fussy in who it took.
That the Parnellite faction could put forward a candidate at all was a surprise. When the news was announced on posters around the town of Omagh, many Anti-Parnellites were inclined to regard it as a joke. It was not until a delegation of Parnellites left Omagh on the evening of the 18th June to greet their incoming candidate that the matter was confirmed.
The Count arrived in town, with a torchlight procession and the sounds of band music, through streets filled with knots of curious onlookers. Plunkett – “who spoke under difficulties,” according to a local newspaper – explained to the crowd his Party’s stance, which was that of the late Parnell, “the policy which his followers over his grave at Glasnevin had pledged themselves to carry out.” Though an outsider, Plunkett busied himself with paying personal visits around the constituency.
The election was to be a three-way contest. According to Geraldine, her father withdrew in order to support his Anti-Parnellite counterpart, Matthew Joseph Kenny, lest he split the Nationalist vote and allow in a Unionist. However, that is untrue, as the parliamentary records show that he continued to stand and received 123 votes, compared to Kenny’s 3,667 and the Unionist candidate’s 2,590. The best that could be said of such a result is that at least Plunkett’s share was too small to have threatened the other Nationalist.
There was nothing that could be said against Plunkett’s courage, however. While making the electioneering rounds by wagon, his party was attacked upon stopping at the Catholic churchyard of Carrickmore by its Anti-Parnellite congregation when their parish priest recognised the rival candidate (it is unclear if the padre had incited the crowd or merely made his hostility known to them). Plunkett was punched in the mouth and, bleeding heavily, hurried back with his companions to their wagon, on which they narrowly escaped amidst a hail of stones.
Little wonder, then, that after the election results were read out on the 8th July, Plunkett praised his fellow loser, the Unionist candidate, as having behaved honourably, while pointedly omitting Kenny and the conduct of his followers.
At least his time there was not to be a complete waste. Three years later, the poet Alice Milligan asked him for the names of Tyrone Nationalists to help gather interest for her politically-themed publications. Literature, art and culture were always there as consolations for Count Plunkett when politics failed.
St Stephen’s Ward
Plunkett picked himself up from this loss to stand again for Parliament in 1895, this time for the St Stephen’s Green Ward, Dublin, which was at least a more plausible seat than faraway Tyrone. He was also better prepared this time, taking care to announce and explain his candidacy in an open letter to the newspapers:
Having been selected by a National Convention to contest your division, I gladly accept the task imposed on me.
I am in complete accord with the Independent [Parnellite] Party. I have always held the Policy of Independence of English Parties to be Ireland’s only hope in the Imperial Parliament.
As I do not seek a seat in Parliament as a stepping-stone to office, I will not subordinate the interests of Ireland to any other interest whatsoever.
As a Catholic, I am in favour of Denominational Education.
I am in favour of Peasant Proprietary for Ireland.
I sympathise warmly with the movement for the release of political prisoners,
I will do all in my power for the welfare of the Irish working man, and for the promotion and protection of Irish industries.
It is now our duty to wrest the St Stephen’s Green Division from the Unionist, and to show by our energy and enthusiasm that Ireland is solid for Home Rule.
To secure the result, upon which such vital interests may depend, EVERY HOME RULE VOTE MUST BE POLLED.
His support for peasant landownership may have come as a surprise to those who had known his aversion towards the Land League. Everything else was standard Nationalist aspiration, particularly the appeal to Home Rule, even if that was very much dead in the water for the while.
This time Count Plunkett was the sole Nationalist candidate, standing against a Unionist, William Kenny (who, by a strange coincidence, shared the same surname as Plunkett’s archenemy in Mid-Tyrone three years ago, although there was no relation). Still, the election was a tense one, with the Irish Times noting that on polling day:
The aspect of Dublin yesterday was unusual. The air was fully charged with political electricity, and for years past the city has not seen busier or more anxious hours than those of the intervals during which the polling booth remained open.
Plunkett and Kenny were seen putting in their fair shares of electioneering work as they drove around to the various polling stations and encouraged their respective adherents throughout the day. Despite the Count’s efforts, Kenny was to be announced as the victor, beating his Nationalist foe by 3,661 votes to 3,205.
Opportunity knocked again for Plunkett the aspiring politician when, three years later, Kenny was appointed a judge, prompting a by-election for St Stephen’s Ward. Once more, Plunkett was defeated by a Unionist candidate, though the results were closer this time – 3,525 to 3,387.
The cause for this second defeat was attributed by Nationalist critics to a system whereby “lodgers” – the sons of local Unionists – who normally lived in England could stay in their families’ homes in Dublin for a minimum of twelve months to count as lodgers and thus vote in the elections.
Polling day had been notably skittish. Even before the results were known, Plunkettite canvassers were handing out cards objecting to the unfair odds against them. “Notice to Lodger voters take notice,” they read, “That the vote of every person who is registered as a lodger, and who has not signed his claim himself, is objected to, and if necessary, will be objected to on a petition.”
Large placards to the same effect were put up around the constituency. The rebellious mood spread to the polling booths. In Pembroke, a polling clerk made himself conspicuous by pestering ‘lodger’ voters with questions like “What rent do you pay?” Another clerk of Nationalist sympathies attempted to stop a voter on the grounds that he had already left the house for which his name was on the register. The voter, however, insisted on his rights and his contribution to the ballot was duly noted.
The military authorities had caught wind of the tension. To avoid the risk of further unrest, they confined their troops stationed nearby to their barracks for the duration of the poll. Those soldiers entitled to vote were allowed passes to leave on condition that they return at once when done.
Stymied yet again, Plunkett at least had found a cause to work on, and he campaigned for two years to change these rigged electoral procedures. His efforts bore fruit by 1900 when a Nationalist candidate finally took St Stephen’s Ward at 3,429 votes to the Unionist’s 2,873.
The Count had not stood that time. Geraldine attributed his withdrawal from politics to the mutual dislike between him and John Redmond, leader of the reunited Irish Party, not to mention the opposition of his hard-headed wife (who held the purse-strings) to any more expensive elections.
Corroborating this explanation are letters by John Redmond, one from 1896 in which he regretfully – but nonetheless quite firmly – declined to pay for the expenses incurred by Plunkett as part of the unsuccessful election for St Stephen’s Ward the previous year. The Count made one last push for reimbursement in 1902, but received the same rebuff from Redmond, who pleaded money shortages – “It is not a fact I am sorry to say that the National Organisations are well provided with funds” – and ended with how he saw “great difficulty in dealing with the matter satisfactorily to you.”
For all his hard work and money spent, Plunkett had not progressed in the Irish Party from anything higher than a hanger-on. The professional politicians who the Count had aspired to join had had a use for him before, and now, with the Party reunited, they did not.
Frustrated, Plunkett threw himself into his studies, in particular the writing of a scholarly work on Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter about whom he felt strongly enough to name one of his dogs after. The Renaissance in general was a topic close to his heart; his favourite reading material being, besides the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Todd Andrews was invited to inspect the Count’s considerable library, he was too distracted by the “splendid collection” of books on Renaissance art to investigate the rest of the shelves.
Published in 1900, Sandro Botticelli was a success, and earned its author a string of honorary memberships at the Academy of St Luke in Rome, the Academy of the Fine Arts in Florence, and the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi al Pantheon.
Plunkett went from strength to strength in 1907 when he was made Director of the National Museum. He would regard it as much a calling as a job, and as work in service to the nation. “To my mind a museum is more than a system,” he told a conference of the Museums’ Association in 1912. “It is a part of the national life, it is an expression of the national life and of the higher qualities of the people to whom it belongs.”
One cause for development was that, while the Museum had many ancient objects from Ireland – “We are fortunate in having the greatest collection of Celtic antiquities in Europe,” as he put it – the exhibitions were lacking in later items: “There is the long period during the occupation of Ireland by the English, which is hardly represented at all. We have works of extraordinary beauty extending down as far as the thirteenth century, but then occurs this gap which we have hitherto been unable to fill.” And it was important that this gap in question be filled, “so that our people may be in a position to realise vividly the elements of their own past.”
Equipped with this vision and passion, Plunkett thrived, as did the Museum, such as when he succeeded in dramatically increasing attendance levels from a hundred students in one year to three thousand in another. A theatre room was built, where the Director took the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, and used the venue to deliver lectures of his own.
“To have had lessons on art history from a master such as Count Plunkett does not fall to the lot of many,” was how an appreciative Andrews described his time with him.
He was to remain in that happy role for nine years until the Easter Week of 1916 threw the country into turmoil and uprooted his quiet, orderly life. It was an upset he had had some small hand in.
A Family Affair
By the time of the Rising, the Plunkett family had already been steeped in the sort of politics that Dublin Castle had tried to tempt the Count out of with its National Gallery offer. The clan patriarch was preoccupied with the demands of running his museum (there was no doubt that it was ‘his’), and so it was the new generation who led the charge.
In November 1913, Joseph, saw a notice in certain newspapers, calling a meeting to organise an Irish Volunteer force in order to ensure and, if necessary, fight for the passing of the Home Rule Bill The notice was signed by Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League.
Joseph was intrigued but, stricken with tuberculosis as he was, not think much of his chances of being accepted, plaintively asking his sister Geraldine: “Do you think I could be of any use? I’m afraid I won’t be able to do very much.”
Geraldine encouraged him to try anyway. After an encouraging talk with MacNeill, Joseph attended the meeting, held on the 25th in a skating rink at the back of the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. Much to his surprise, Joseph found himself on the platform and nominated to the Provisional Committee of the newly-founded Irish Volunteers, under the chairmanship of MacNeill and in the company of other soon-to-be celebrated men such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.
Joseph returned home excited and not a little confused by his sudden elevation, which Geraldine attributed to his friendships with insiders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), some of whom were also on the committee. In time, he would be inducted into that oath-bound secret society and, later, its Military Council (which also included Pearse and MacDonagh).
This was despite not being, as his brother Jack admitted, the most practical of people (few in the family were, their mother notwithstanding), his talents instead lying with the suggestion of ideas that others could then implement.
Personal connections also played a role. Joseph had met MacDonagh when the latter was hired in 1909 to tutor him for exams. His resultant low marks did not stop the two from developing a friendship. Both shared literary and poetic tastes, and the pair worked together on the Irish Review magazine, of which MacDonagh was editor. MacDonagh might also have been the one to introduce Joseph to fellow poet Pearse, possibly in 1910 or 1911, making the Military Council sometimes seem like the continuation of the same social circle.
The other Plunkett siblings were not to be left out. Though still a schoolboy, Jack also joined the Volunteers, later working full-time on Joseph’s staff. His main duties were the rigging of wireless radios, at which he admitted to being largely unsuccessful (Jack was still the most technically-minded Plunkett, and in later years would indulge in his hobby of tinkering with motor-car engines).
For her part, Geraldine made to join Cumann na mBan, but was dissuaded by Joseph. Unwilling to risk letters or telephones, her older brother wanted her to relay messengers on his behalf to his co-conspirators, a role which would be easier to perform without attracting the notice of Dublin Castle detectives if she was unknown to them.
Secrecy became the watchword of the day. Jack only learnt years later that he and the third Plunkett brother, George Oliver, had worked on the same project – he could not remember which – despite the two of them living under the same roof. It was not until Easter Week, when the brothers were holed up together in the GPO, that Joseph felt comfortable enough to talk to Jack about certain, previously hush-hush matters.
The family property at Larkfield in Kimmage, south of Dublin, was utilised into a base for the younger Plunketts as they became more involved in radical politics. Consisting of twelve acres of land, with yards, paddocks, an old farm and a mill, complete with a “beautiful middle-sized house…and a garden full of roses,” Larkfield had originally been purchased by the Countess for the family (one of the few times Geraldine was prepared to concede when her mother had not been a complete ogress).
Given the poor state of Joseph’s health, it was easier for his IRB partners to visit him in Larkfield as he had taken to living there along with the rest of the family. Their paterfamilias was the last to join them, and 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street was left to store his books, receive mail but otherwise gather dust. The Count soon settled into a pleasant routine of heading off to the Museum for a day’s work before walking back to Kimmage from the tram at Harold’s Cross.
He was presumably unconcerned about the growing number of young men on the Larkfield property. Unsettled by the threat of conscription, these newcomers had departed from Britain, intending to fight at home for their country rather than in France for another.
“Suddenly one morning about forty young men descended on us,” was how Geraldine remembered the beginning of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, as they became known by. The numbers of this impromptu company swelled to approximately ninety members, fresh off the boat from cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.
They were kept busy with military drills in between the manufacture of munitions, namely shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades. One member proudly recounted how, on a peak night, they could produce up to five thousand lead pellets and twenty grenades, sometimes working twenty-four hour shifts.
Joseph’s work on the Military Council intensified. After Christmas 1915, he told Geraldine that he was off to Germany, which she assumed was for the purpose of procuring weapons. He entrusted his sister with the cipher he would use in any letters sent, to be passed on to her via a cousin and then forwarded to Pearse or another of the conspirators.
He did not trust his mother as much, telling her only that he was leaving for the Continent. In an insight into the complicated dynamics of the household, Joseph changed his mind and informed the Countess that he was going on Volunteer business that might take him to Germany. When Geraldine asked him why “on God’s earth he had done such a thing,” he replied that their mother, adept at prying as she was, would have found out anyway.
Count Plunkett’s involvement, if any, goes unstated in Geraldine’s memoir until early April 1916, when the reader learns of him being sworn into the IRB by Joseph. Geraldine did not record her father’s thoughts on the matter, only that “he was very pleased that his son was now his superior officer.”
But Pa Plunkett was not to be just another ordinary member, for his son had a very particular mission in mind for his new subordinate.
On Easter Sunday, W.J. Brennan-Whitmore was preparing for the start of the uprising in Dublin when he was informed by his commanding officer, Thomas MacDonagh, that Count Plunkett had just returned from Rome, bringing with him the blessing of the Pope for their venture. While pleased to hear such news, Brennan-Whitmore could not help but wonder, just a little, for “it seemed unusual,” and he was still not wholly convinced by the time he penned his memoirs years later.
Brennan-Whitmore was not the only one uncertain, and it was to answer such doubts that Count Plunkett told his side of the story in a brief article for the Irish Press newspaper in 1933:
I have heard that it is denied that I went to Rome immediately before the Rising of 1916 to communicate with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. I had no desire to publish information that at the time was not intended for the Press; but now I must disclose certain facts in the interest of truth.
Why he had waited so long before revealing all was left unstated. A need for secrecy seems unlikely, given the length of time that had passed, not to mention how participation in the Rising rapidly became a badge of honour (and political asset) in the months that followed. That the Count had managed for seventeen years to refrain from publicising his role in the most celebrated rebellion in national history – despite the advantages it would have brought to his subsequent career as a Republican firebrand – was an impressive act of restraint in itself.
About three weeks before the Rising, I was, through my son Joseph, commissioned by the Executive of the Irish Volunteers (the Provisional Government) to act as their Envoy on the Continent.
According to Geraldine (whose account fills in some of the gaps in her father’s), Joseph had heard news of the visit of the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, to the Vatican. Concerned that His Holiness might be pressured or persuaded to instruct his Irish bishops to condemn any rebellion, Joseph decided that his father would make the best emissary to plead their case. As a papal count, he was, after all, entitled to such an audience.
One task given to me I needed not particular here. When it was carried out, I went onto Rome, according to my instructions.
The task in question was to send a communication to Germany where Sir Roger Casement was attempting to solicit aid for the rebels. The Count was to memorise the message (papers being too vulnerable to carry around) before sending it from neutral Switzerland en route to Italy. Again, it is unclear as to why he felt the need to omit this detail – perhaps he was simply concerned about the length of the article.
Having arrived at his destination, the Count was granted his audience with Pope Benedict:
For nigh on two hours we discussed freely the question of the coming struggle for Irish independence. The Pope was much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed and the reason for that decision. Finally, I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred His Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland’s liberty.
The wording makes it sound as if Plunkett was handing the country over on a silver platter. Most likely, he was reassuring the Pope that the insurgents had no distastefully left-leaning, anti-clerical or – God forbid – socialist tendencies.
(Such consideration for papal sensitivity was not untypical. Four years later, Sean T. O’Kelly stressed to the same pontiff that “as practising Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.”)
The article also gives the impression that the Pope took all of this in with serene acceptance. Plunkett gave a more dramatic version to Geraldine, in which the Vicar of Christ bestowed his blessing with tears of sympathy pouring down his face.
Monsignor Curran’s record of what the Count had told him on Easter Monday was less striking but perhaps more likely. Here, Benedict XV comes across as noticeably circumspect upon being asked to approve of a venture that had just been sprung on him:
The Pope showed great perturbation and asked was there no peaceful way out of the difficulty…Count Plunkett answered every question, making it plain that it was the will of the leaders of the movement to act entirely with the good-will or approval – I forget which now – of the Pope and to give an assurance that they wished to act as Catholics. It was for that reason they came to inform his Holiness. All the Pope could do was express his profound anxiety.
One consistent detail in the different versions is how Plunkett informed the Pope that the date of the uprising was fixed, leaving the latter with no chance at dissuasion. It was the same Machiavellian deference he would apply when dropping in to see Archbishop Walsh. The Count may have been a man of a lofty intellect and cultured tastes, but he was also capable of low cunning when it was called for.
Count Plunkett finished his article with his return to Ireland, just in time for the big event:
Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent in my report on the results of my mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916.
According to Geraldine, her father arrived back in Ireland on Holy Thursday and spent the remaining four days before the Rising travelling around the country to meet with various bishops to request that they also refrain from condemnation. Geraldine thought he visited five bishops altogether, but Monsignor Curran was not aware of any of this when he saw the Count on Easter Monday, and it is hard to believe that these other bishops would not have passed word to the Archbishop of Dublin beforehand.
Count Plunkett omitted his talk with Curran in his 1933 article and also how afterwards, according to Geraldine, he had made his way to the GPO, with the Rising unfolding all around, to ask Joseph to take him on as another Volunteer. Recognising that a 65-year old man did not make for an credible soldier, Joseph told his father that they had enough men inside already and instead sent him home.
In the meantime, the members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ had been preparing themselves. Pearse had addressed them a week before, urging them to be ready. His enthusiasm was infectious and the men looked forward to Easter Sunday when they would finally see action.
When Sunday came, the ‘Garrison’ was assembled and armed when a car pulled up at Larkfield with the news that the operation was cancelled.
The following day saw the men in a sullen mood. Before, they had been early risers to a man but now they did nothing but lounge about. The only flicker of interest was in the talk of heading into town to start their own insurrection, orders and countermands be damned.
It was sometime before noon when a whistle blew, calling the ‘Garrison’ into line. George Oliver Plunkett, the 22-year old younger brother of Joseph, had been placed in charge – no one seemed perturbed by such nepotism – and was now wearing, according to one of his subordinates, “a broad, proud, confident smile.”
George read out a dispatch, saying they were to parade at Liberty Hall. To the men, this could mean only one thing: they would have their Rising after all. Enthusiasm overrode discipline as they broke ranks and ran to gather their weapons.
Now prepared, the Volunteers marched to where they boarded a tram (their fares paid for by a considerate George) and were taken to the city centre, where they disembarked at O’Connell Street. Making their way to Liberty Hall, they saw Joseph waiting for them outside. He was, as one of them recalled, “beautifully dressed, having high tan boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.”
It had been a turbulent few days for Joseph as he tried balancing the imminent rebellion with his love life. His fiancée, Grace Gifford, remembered him in high spirits the previous week. Things took a darker turn on the Saturday when Michael Collins visited her at home to deliver, on Joseph’s behalf, a revolver and money, one to fight with and the other to bribe a British soldier if needs be. Grace did not know of which to be more frightened.
When she saw her betrothed the next day, he was “wretched looking”, having skipped the nursing home he was due to check into. Afterwards, Grace could not recall what they had talked about, not even if it was about their wedding, for they were due at the altar the next day, alongside his sister Geraldine and her nuptials in the same church.
Grace and he had been discussing marriage dates for some time. Joseph had suggested Lent which Grace, as a newly converted Catholic, was against. She suggested Easter instead, but Joseph at first resisted on the grounds that “we may be having a revolution then.”
Though Grace and Joseph would not have their wedding until they were in a prison cell, hours before the latter was due to be executed, Geraldine plunged ahead with her own on Easter Sunday. The happy couple cycled to the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street for the night.
The following morning, Geraldine watched from the hotel window with her new husband as uniformed Volunteers advanced up the street and halted in front of the GPO. She recognised her brothers, Joseph and George, the older accompanied by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, as they and their men set to work constructing barricades.
One Volunteer tried to drive an abandoned tram into another but failed to pick up the necessary speed. Instead, Joseph threw a Larkfield-made bomb into the vehicle and shot it with his pistol from about thirty yards away – “a beautiful shot,” as Geraldine remembered. The shot detonated the bomb, mangling the tram and rendering it a perfect obstacle.
This was the last time Geraldine would see her brother. When she tried talking her way into the GPO, she was told on behalf of Joseph to go home as the building was already full up. It was the same line Joseph gave his father. He may have been willing to risk his own life but he drew a line at certain family members.
Count Plunkett was arrested on the 1st May, two days after the collapse of the Rising. His experiences were described in two short documents: a pencil manuscript in the Count’s hand in the first person, and a typescript in the third, possibly intended for publication.
The Count was in his Upper Fitzwilliam Street residence when a body of soldiers demanded admittance. Despite their lack of a warrant, Plunkett decided that compliance was the wisest course. The men searched the house, breaking open desks and spilling their contents onto the floor, while taking the opportunity to pocket a number of items, including the Count’s prized collection of papal medals.
Also seized were two historical dress-swords which the Count had labelled for loan to the Museum. Plunkett was unaware of these thefts at the time as the only item officially taken was a third ceremonial sword that came with his uniform as Director. The soldiers also tried to get him to admit to having guns in the house but he insisted there was none.
Their search complete, the soldiers arrested Plunkett and took him in an iron-sided van to Dublin Castle. There, he was brought to a small, dirty cell, occupied by twenty others, where they spent the night. His roommates were a mixed bunch, some being “men of education” like himself, others having been arrested for looting. A few were injured, indicating that they had played a part in the recent fighting.
“I cannot” – at this point, the manuscript broke off. The typescript continued the unhappy narration. After a breakfast of canned ‘bully beef’, stale biscuits and tea served in cans, the prisoners were ordered out and marched through the streets to Richmond Barracks, “being subject to insult by the military and the disreputable camp-followers on the way.”
Upon reaching the Barracks, they were again crammed, twenty-seven of them, into a space intended for eleven. As before, their confinements were filthy despite the presence of wounded men who received no special consideration (one fellow prisoner who shared the cell with Plunkett corroborated the crowded squalor of their confinement, and how the prisoners discovered that a pair of boots could make a much-welcomed pillow).
For nearly a week, the prisoners were left to sleep on bare floorboards. Sometimes it was so cold that even the weariest were kept awake through the night. Mealtimes were a drudge of hard biscuits, ‘bully beef’ and black tea, assuaged only when the guards were bribed for food from outside. The Count – or least the document – made the claim that he broke three teeth on a biscuit, but as this is mentioned nowhere else, it was probably untrue.
Things improved somewhat when their treatment was publicised in the newspapers, and the medical staff warned of a fever outbreak should conditions remain as they were. The prisoners were first given rugs to lie on. Sanitary arrangements improved. Food became at least tolerable.
After a fortnight, the Count was finally granted a bed; a hard one, but better than the floorboards. He began receiving visits from his family except his wife, who had been arrested in turn two days after him, a fact he had been previously unaware of.
Twice he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and brought out to the grounds where a court-martial had been convened, apparently for a session, but each time he was sent back, still untried. At least such outings allowed him to see Joseph, George and Jack, also waiting as prisoners. A soldier later said within earshot that all three had been shot. Another clarified a few days later that George and Jack had ‘only’ been sentenced to ten years. All their father could glimpse of the pair was from a window before they were dispatched to Portland Prison in England.
He had already witnessed his eldest son on the day of Joseph’s court-martial, standing in the square of Richmond Barracks, from a first storey window. The two looked at each other for a long while before Joseph was moved on, soon to be before a firing-squad. The Count was weeping as he told this to Geraldine: “Even after the executions, it was not thought right to weep openly, but Pa did, and it was one of the reasons I loved him.”
For all the hardship, Count Plunkett did his best to stay in good humour. A friendly priest, Father Eugene Nevin, visited him in Kilmainham, finding the “dear old man in a small white-washed room, the only furniture of any kind being what looked like a large soap box on which he sat reading the last evening’s Mail.”
Not only could Plunkett greet his visitor with a smile, but he was soon laughing out loud, finding much merriment in the published correspondence between the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and General Maxwell. Bishop O’Dwyer had replied to Maxwell’s requests for cooperation with a notably acerbic pen, and Plunkett could at least vicariously enjoy the Bishop’s defiance of the man who had overseen Joseph’s execution two weeks before.
Another source of humour, albeit of a black kind, was a piece of pantomime by him and his fellow prisoners. Plunkett played the role of judge in a mock-trial of Éamon de Valera, awaiting his own court-martial in Kilmainham, who was ‘charged’ with conspiring to become King of the Periwinkles and Emperor of the Muglins.
Everyone present would have known of similar ‘trials’ performed by the imprisoned Young Irelanders after their own failed uprising almost seventy years before. Despite the intent of the charade to relieve some of the tension, de Valera could not help but be unsettled, particularly when the onlookers took the game a little too far by clapping their hands to imitate the sound of a firing squad.
But such diversions could not hold off the reality of the situation indefinitely. When Geraldine was able to visit her father on the 8th May, a week after his arrest, she was shocked by what she saw:
We were taken upstairs to a guardroom where Pa was alone, sitting on the bed. I hardly recognised him. He had been arrested more than a fortnight before and was extremely dirty and miserable and more pleased to see the soap and towel than the food. His beard had practically all fallen off and although he was only sixty-five, he looked eighty-five, a poor tired old man.
Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that his attempts at poetry, composed on scraps of paper and spare envelopes, should have a suitably anguished tone:
The Countess was having it no better. Another woman imprisoned at Mountjoy in the cell next to Josephine’s remembered her being “in a terrible state about her son having been executed, and she used to get awfully lonely and upset at night.” Talking to each other through the wall brought at least a measure of comfort.
Relief came for the pair when they were both notified on the 5th June that they could be released on condition of signing a form, agreeing to deportation to a place in England of their choice. Both signed, with Oxfordshire decided as their destination. They were reunited at Upper Fitzwilliam Street and spent four days there before leaving the country on the 9th, taking their daughter Fiona with them.
As part of their agreement, the couple promised to “abstain from making any speeches or attending or taking part, directly or indirectly, in any political or other demonstration or meeting before leaving Ireland.” They also agreed not to return home without written permission from the Home Secretary or the military authorities.
Exactly why either of them had been arrested at all is unclear. Unlike their sons, they had not been arrested at the scene of an armed uprising. Neither had held leadership positions or any rank among the Irish Volunteers. The lack of a court-martial or trial means that whatever evidence the authorities had against the couple, as well the reasons for detaining two aging non-combatants in the first place, will remain unknown.
The exiles arrived in London on the morning of the 10th before pressing on to Oxford. Count Plunkett attended Mass the following day before getting down to business and writing to the Prime Minister and later the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting (there is no indication that either replied, however).
Always ready to balance politics with his craft, he sent copies of some verse to a number of Irish publications. Hinting at his state of mind was the title of one: ‘O Blessed Gift of Poverty’.
While their Oxford lodgings were a far cry from the luxurious residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street or the idyllic surroundings of Larkfield, materially the couple could have been worse. A natural entrepreneur, the Countess crafted furniture to sell and, though Geraldine snidely commented on their quality in her memoirs, she made enough to cover the rent and shopping (the latter task falling to Fiona). For home fires, the family made do with old newspapers and lumps of sugar.
Still, the future looked bleak. They were to be dispossessed for an indefinite period, many of their belongings in Dublin had been stolen, and their eldest son was dead with the other two were about to embark on lengthy penal sentences. The National Museum lay over a burnt bridge, the Count having received notice of his suspension as its director. His position would “be determined upon the receipt of a Report from the Military Authorities,” which made any chance of reclamation an unlikely one.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, Count Plunkett, who had chosen Oxford for access to its famous Bodleian Library, had his application for a library ticket refused.