John Morley was a worried man despite his recent elevation. He had just been appointed as Irish Chief Secretary, a role he was regarding with considerable dubiety. This he sought to assuage by a talk, on the 17th October 1892, with a man who had his ear to the ground of that troubled – and, from the point of view of many in the British Government, troublesome – quarter of the United Kingdom.
John Redmond was only too keen to respond to Morley’s urgent invitation and got straight to the point: “How do you regard the prospects of this winter?”
Not good, the Chief Secretary-to-be admitted. “If I can’t rule Ireland this winter with success, it means destruction.”
While Morley dismissed rumours of secret societies, he was all too aware of how politics on that island were of a tempestuous sort, fully capable of wrecking any public career – such as his – on its rocks. With that in mind, he was equally direct with Redmond: “Can you give me any hope on this point?”
Redmond could, while leaving the onus on Morley. “It depends on yourself,” he replied. “If you are thorough you can disarm hostility. In the first place, release the prisoners.”
“Do you mean the Dynamiters?” Morley asked, referring to the Fenian bombing campaign in England. While the minutes of this conversation do not convey tone, it is clear that Morley was hesitant about such a step but it was something Redmond felt strongly about, particularly if the other man wanted a quiet winter. “Amnesty – Amnesty – Amnesty!” he stressed, in case Morley missed it the first time.
As the conversation passed through a number of other topics, Morley expressed incredulity on one in particular while, in doing so, exposing the depths of his naivety:
Morley: Do you really want Home Rule?
Redmond: Certainly – genuine Home Rule.
Morley: Then don’t destroy our chances of giving it to you.
Redmond would show just how much he wanted Home Rule – of the genuine sort – by refusing to sit idly by for it to be granted. But it was not enough and the subsequent generation was to push him and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) aside, impatient to take rather than wait. All political careers may end in failure, but Redmond’s failed harder than most, leaving not so much a legacy as an embarrassment.
“The caricature of Redmond that has come down to us from the Sinn Féin-permeated political culture,” as historian Dermot Meleady puts it, has him as:
…out of touch with the Irish people and Irish culture, too much time spent in London, too trusting of British politicians, his tendency to ‘compliance’ where Parnell had embodied ‘defiance’.
The reader is invited to judge the truth of this image for themselves from this selection of correspondence, stretching four decades, from 1880, when Redmond first entered the political game, to his final year of 1918:
The letters in general are courteously businesslike in style and content, conveying in their neatness of handwriting and conciseness of style, a strong impression of self-discipline. Little emotion is revealed.
This stoicism served Redmond well during his tenure as IPP Chairman, buffeted as he was by one squall after another. No sooner had he been elected leader in 1900, in a move to bind the wounds of the Parnell Split, then he was faced with another feud that threatened to undo all the work of reuniting the Irish Party, this time between the prima donnas: William O’Brien and Timothy Healy.
“The only thing on which I am quite clear and which for me will involve the question of my membership of the Party,” O’Brien wrote to Redmond in November 1900, “is that the Convention ought specifically to direct Healy’s exclusion from the Party.”
O’Brien had his way in that regard, and the IPP began the following year by re-entering the Land Struggle as they agitated for land purchases, alongside the tactics of intimidation and boycotts, while staying short of violence. It was a delicate balance, and O’Brien’s push for an escalation alarmed Redmond, as it did his deputy, John Dillon.
This led to a three-way exchange of letters, as Redmond and Dillon strove to reign in their headstrong colleague. “I am…in complete agreement with you in thinking there is need at this moment for renewed activity,” Redmond told O’Brien soothingly. “What I differ from you is as to the means.”
Which was exactly Redmond’s style: calm, measured, in polite disagreement if need be while giving every impression that he was otherwise on your side. The emergence of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, a consequence of the Home Rule Crisis, put his powers of diplomacy to the test.
“I can assure you I am extremely anxious that we should come to some understanding,” he wrote to Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the armed new movement, on the issue of IPP personnel on its ruling body. It was a question of control, something which MacNeill was reluctant to surrender, but Redmond was nothing if not persistent.
“Why this moderate demand of ours was not conceded at once, I cannot understand,” he told MacNeill, rather passive-aggressively. “The present Committee [of the Irish Volunteers] is purely provisional, self-elected and includes no representative of the Irish Party.”
Between themselves, the IPP leaders were not overly impressed with their new rival. “My interview with MacNeill left me the impression that he is extremely muddle-headed,” complained Dillon. MacNeill showed some of his strain in a reply to Redmond: “I am sorry that I have not been able to make the position clear to you.”
When the tenuous peace between the political and the paramilitary cracked with the Volunteer split in September 1914, and the majority sided with the IPP, Redmond indulged in some uncharacteristic ‘tough talk’. The remnants of the Volunteers who had stayed with MacNeill’s faction were “to be fought vigorously and remorselessly by us, who believe in the constitutional movement and in Home Rule as a settlement of the Irish question.”
At the end, the Irish question would be settled, vigorously and remorselessly, by a very different set of tactics. When the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, Redmond was in London, cut off from the rapid turn of events, while Dillon did his best to relay news to his Chairman from the warzone.
“Dublin is full of the most extraordinary rumours,” he wrote on the Easter Sunday, the 23rd April. “What it is I cannot make out.”
By Wednesday, Dillon had made out a little more, if barely. “The situation here is terrible,” he lamented. “We are in absolute ignorance of what has been going on, beyond the fact that fierce fighting has been in progress in many parts of the city.”
While always engaging, the book turns particularly gripping from here, as the IPP struggled to come to terms with an Ireland that had been turned on its head by the end of the six days over Easter Week. Dillon provided the voice of reason, warning Redmond that the resulting executions would be a PR disaster, both for the British Government and themselves.
In that, he was entirely correct. The correspondence from then on presents a picture of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as the constitutional cause was rejected by the voters, first in a quartet of by-elections in 1917, and then in the 1918 General Election, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped off the political map.
Its erstwhile Chairman was dead by then, the victim of a heart attack in March 1918. “What a terrible thing that poor Redmond should be taken from his people just at this time,” T.P. O’Connor wrote as he commiserated with Dillon. “However, personally, I think that the inability of his heart to respond was not due to any other cause than that it was broken.”
Eagle-eyed readers with a keen memory will recall how, earlier in the book and the year 1895, Redmond had received a report assessing the state of the ‘Dynamiters’ held in Portland Prison, the same men on whose behalf he had lobbied John Morley. That Redmond wrote out the findings showed his abiding interest.
Health-wise, the inmates were a mixed bag. Duff – “Insane”, Dalton – “Sound in mind and body”, McDermot – “Ditto.” One in particular showed “symptoms of valvular disease” and indigestion but otherwise was also of “sound mind.” That mind belonged to a certain Tom Clarke, who went on to overturn everything his benefactor had been working on with the Easter Rising, twenty-one years later.
If history goes in cycles, then nowhere is that truer than of the Irish variety, where today’s heroes could become tomorrow’s failures, and the prisoners of now end up shaping the future; just one of the many lessons this book can provide.
Seán Milroy, governor of Mountoy Prison, was surprised at the sight of the latest inmate – a stout, elderly man – brought before him in his office. “Something very bad was wrong with him evidently,” Milroy noted. “He was extremely restless, moving his arms about in a jerky, spasmodic fashion, and rolling his eyes in an awful way.”
The prisoner’s name, when Milroy asked the warden in attendance, was John Redmond, who had been proving to be a bother, pacing up and down his cell while shouting slogans like: “Poor little Belgium! Charters of liberty! The Allies! The Empire. The Huns!”
As if to demonstrate, Redmond grew even more agitated in front of Milroy, yelling out: “Disgruntled cranks! Factionists! German gold!” and words to that effect.
This behaviour worsened as the warden tried calming him, and Milroy rang the bell on his desk for assistance. It was then that the ‘governor’ woke up from his daydream, his role-reversing fantasy of himself in the position of authority, with his political opponents humbled before him, and not, as he really was, a prisoner in Mountjoy.
At least Milroy – a “well-known Sinn Feiner”, according to a contemporary newspaper report – could take solace in that he was nearing the end of his three-month sentence, from June to September 1915, for “having used language likely to discourage recruiting for His Majesty’s Army” in a public speech. He did not record his time behind bars, spent in the company of like-minded prisoners such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows, until two years later, in 1917, by which time the country was in a very different state, indeed.
Nationalist Ireland had turned on itself, like Ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, one end consuming the other. It was now no longer necessary to imagine the degradation of Redmond, on whose shoulders the hopes of Irish self-rule had once rested. The mere sight of him as he left Trinity College, Dublin, in mid-1917, incited boos from the small crowd outside the front gate.
The jeers grew louder, as the hecklers followed Redmond up Westmoreland Street, prompting some civic-minded passers-by to form a protective ring around the beleaguered politician. Even so, it was only after he hurried inside the first building to hand for refuge that the danger could be said to have passed.
“I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to Redmond,” remembered one witness, “I would have joined in.” To sixteen-year-old Todd Andrews and many others in Sinn Féin, Redmond was “the epitome of politicians in general, and all politicians were regarded as low, dirty and treacherous.”
It was not for want of trying on Redmond’s part. On the 7th March 1917, he and rest of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tried to break the impasse over Home Rule, its long-cherished project, when T.P. O’Connor, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Scotland, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on that august assembly “without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised.”
David Lloyd George declined. Or rather, the Prime Minister declared that Home Rule was there for the parts of Ireland which wanted it. But, in regards to the remainder, those who were Irishmen in name while being, as he put it, “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen” – no, Home Rule was not something he would force on them.
These ‘alien’ exceptions were the Unionists, who had shifted from opposing Home Rule in its entirety to demanding that various counties be given the option of remaining outside the jurisdiction of any new Dublin parliament, answerable only to the one at Westminster, just as before. As these Unionists were concentrated largely in Ulster, such allowances would amount in practice to the exclusion of those six counties in the north-east corner of the island.
Perfect from the Ulster Unionists’ point of view but political suicide for Redmond should this Partition happen on his watch. Unfortunately for the Irish Party, such passions were beyond the ability of Englishmen to relate to.
“We often cut up counties in England without engaging in civil war,” Harold Spender, a pro-Home Rule journalist, wrote to Redmond on the 29th March 1917. “There is no divine law against moving a county landmark.”
Divine law or not, that even a sympathetic individual like Spender could be so obtuse did not bode well for the IPP’s chances of rallying enough support to halt Partition. Yet all its MPs could do was try their best.
(Not) Answering the Irish Question
When T.P. O’Connor dined with Lloyd George on the 22nd January 1917, his lobbying made little headway. To O’Connor’s dismay, the Prime Minister appeared to have spared Home Rule little thought beforehand, being content with Partition as the only credible solution. He was more interested in the possibility of conscription for Ireland in order to solve the need for manpower on the Western Front, a policy which O’Connor was keen to stress as a debacle in the making.
While Lloyd George continuously reassured O’Connor, over the course of their meal together, of his desire to remain on tight terms with his Irish allies, his actions were to fall short of his words, especially if they risked offending the Ulster Unionist presence in Parliament.
Not that Redmond could afford to give up. “I hope you will read this as it is from a friend,” wrote his brother, William, to the Prime Minister, on the 4th March 1917, three days before their showdown in Westminster. The MP for East Clare began with an attempt to rekindle warm memories: “When you entered the House I was then an old member. We fought many battles on the same side.”
As the letter went on, a slight edge of pleading crept in:
I do not want anything from you but this – to settle the Irish question – you are strong enough. Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain.
William Redmond ended with a stark warning: “If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.”
“There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” Lloyd George wrote back two days later, on the 6th March. After all, as he pointed out: “I was elected to the House purely as a Home Rule candidate…and I have voted steadily for Home Rule ever since.”
Which was true enough. But he clearly did not feel the same urgency as William Redmond, nor thought the matter as simple to solve as the other man seemed to: “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question, and if any man can show me a way out of that I should indeed be happy.”
In other words: my hands are tied, so too bad.
Miracles and the Lack of
Appropriately enough, after his efforts in private had been exhausted, it was William Redmond who publicly made the case before Parliament for immediate and unconditional Home Rule. He looked every bit his fifty-five years, much of which had been spent in the service of his country.
“Major Redmond’s hair is white now, and he has lost much of his boyish air,” wrote one observer. “The war has deeply lined his face, and his eyes are more deeply set than in his political swashbuckling days.”
Dressed in khaki, as befitting his rank of major in the British Army, he had stood to second T.P. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th March. To Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, “that debate will always be remembered by those who heard it for one speech” and that was William Redmond’s.
At a length of half an hour, his piece was a relatively short one by the standards of the chamber. In place of the quantity of words, however, William Redmond made up for in quality. Dark and bitter mistakes had been made in the past, and not all on one side, he conceded, but there was no point in brooding on the past.
Instead, he appealed directly to Edward Carson to meet with his Nationalist opposites – for the sake of the future and for the Irishmen who were, even now, fighting and dying together in the same trenches – so they could come to some arrangement on the basis of self-government for their shared island.
If safeguards were what the Ulster Unionists wanted, then Redmond promised to go to any lengths necessary to reassure them, even if that included – he suggested tantalisingly – the acceptance of a Prime Minister from Ulster to head the first Irish Government.
While there were other speeches that day, William Redmond’s was the one that counted as far as many were concerned. O’Connor could hear the heavy breathing of his fellow MPs seated around him, while others who watched from the gallery – so he was told afterwards – were so overcome with emotion that they wept and sobbed unabashedly.
Gwynn was similarly awed. “It was a speech, in short, that made one believe in impossibilities,” as he put it, “but in Parliament no miracles happen.”
When it was clear to the chamber that Lloyd George was no closer than before in supporting an all-Ireland settlement, with Ulster included, John Redmond rose to deliver the piece de resistance of the day. The Prime Minister, he declared, had brought Ireland face to face with revolution. From now on, the country would have to be governed with an unsheathed sword and, as such, it was pointless to continue the debate.
And, with that, reported the Irish Times:
The Nationalists cheered to the echo as their leader left his seat and stalked majestically down the gangway, and along the floor of the House. They followed him, shouting and jeering as they went, while members looked on with serious faces.
If nothing else, the Irish Party still knew how to make an exit. Not that it made any real difference.
When O’Connor and Joe Devlin, the MP for West Belfast, met Lloyd George later in the month, on the 28th March, time had done nothing to change the Prime Minister’s mind. “LG says that the Orangemen still insist on the 6 counties and was hopeless of getting them to move from that position,” O’Connor reported to John Redmond. “We told him he ought to deny them; he says he could not.”
Despite the uphill struggle they faced, O’Connor still kept the faith. “If [Lloyd George] persists in his whole 6-county proposal,” he told Redmond on the 1st April 1917, “he will fail ignominiously for we can tear such a proposal to tatters in the House of Commons.”
Perhaps, but Ireland was no longer waiting to give its representatives that chance.
‘A More Reasonable Outlook’
William Redmond’s celebrated performance in Parliament turned out to be his swansong. “We deeply regret to learn that Major William H.K. Redmond, MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment,” reported the Irish Times on the 11th June 1917, three months later, “was killed in action on the 7th inst. in the brilliant and successful attack on the Ridge of Messines.”
The uniform William Redmond had worn while in the House of Commons had been no pose. Nor was his plea for reconciliation between Nationalist and Unionist Ireland anything less than sincere. That Irish soldiers from the two traditions could fight together in the same trenches was proof enough, to him, that a better, happier future was possible together.
True, differences remained – William Redmond was not so naïve as to think otherwise. “The soldier in France who was a home ruler at home probably remains so,” he admitted, writing publicly in May 1917. “The Ulster soldier who disapproved of home rule probably does so still”:
But the meeting of men of diverse opinions in the field has undoubtedly created an atmosphere of friendliness which must make it easier to adjust differences and which should induce a more reasonable outlook upon things at home.
When William Redmond returned to his regiment in France, in time for the push towards a German strongpoint near Messines, his main fear was that he would be held back from the Front on account of his age.
“He felt absolutely miserable at the prospect of being kept behind,” remembered an army chaplain for the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “He had used every influence with General [William Bernard] Hickie to get over the top with the men”:
He spoke in the most feeling manner of what awaited the poor fellows, and longed to share their sufferings and their fate.
In that regard, he was to have his wish. When permission was given for him to join the firing-line, he informed a fellow Irish officer “with real delight and boyishness in his voice”, to the other man’s wonder: “I have never seen anyone so pleased as he was.”
For his older brother, it was a particularly wounding blow. “The loss of him meant to John Redmond a loss of personal efficiency,” wrote Gwynn. “Sorrow gave a strong grip to depression on a brooding mind which had always a proneness to melancholy.” For William had been more than a sibling to John, but a counsellor too, and perhaps the sole one:
He had who temperamentally shared his own point of view. Willie Redmond was the only man who could break through his brother’s constitutional reserve and could force him into discussion. In the months that were to come such a man was badly needed.
John Redmond’s melancholia-prone mind had already been brooding for quite some time. “Redmond is very depressed,” wrote T.P. O’Connor to John Dillon, on the 18th May 1916. “He seems to be tired out and sick of the whole position and has again and again referred to the possibility of his retiring from politics.”
Dillon, for his part, did not bother so much with sympathy. “It is touch and go whether we can save the movement and keep the Party in existence,” the MP for East Mayo admitted to O’Connor on the 19th August 1916. “A great deal depends on the extent to which the Chairman realises the position and on what his intentions as to the future are.” That “on these points I am to a large extent in the dark” did not bode well for saving their life’s work.
A month later, on the 26th September 1916, Dillon was even more frank to O’Connor: “Enthusiasm and trust in Redmond and the Party is dead [underlined in original text] so far as the mass of the people is concerned.”
A speech Redmond made in Waterford, in October 1916, promising a tougher line in the future, gave the Constitutional cause fresh drive, as even the habitually glum Dillon agreed. To him, the speech was “all that could be desired, and it will do an incalculable amount of good. It has already had an immense effect on the country.”
There would no further negotiations with the British Government, Redmond had declared, only a demand for the release of those interned since the Easter Rising, a call for General Maxwell – his work long done in suppressing sedition – to be withdrawn from the country, and a firm resistance to any possibility of conscription in Ireland.
After months of political deadlock, with their elected representatives appearing no more than hostages to fate, this bold new stance, in Dillon’s opinion, “took the country by surprise, and produced a great wave of reaction in favour of his leadership and of the Party. If that attitude is resolutely adhered to the country will come all right.”
Dead Cat Bounce
If, if, if…
The great wave of reaction had receded by the start of 1917, leaving the Party as stranded as a beached whale. A by-election drubbing in North Roscommon in February – the first of the wins to Sinn Féin that year – was enough to plunge Redmond into a crisis of faith.
In a letter intended for the Party followers, Redmond acknowledged the fork on the road to which they had come. If North Roscommon was an abnormality, “a freak election, due to…momentary passion” over how the winner, Count Plunkett, had had a son executed after the Rising, then that was all well and good. But, on the other hand, should the result represent “a change of principle of policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people,” then the entire future of the Constitutional cause, the raison d’être of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had just been questioned…and found wanting.
If so, then Redmond was prepared to give way graciously: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men if they so choose.”
Thankfully for his colleagues, whose careers were hanging in the balance, Redmond was persuaded against publishing the letter. But not even a close confidant like William Redmond was immune to defeatism, as he privately urged his brother that they and all their MPs step down to make room for younger men.
It was, in Gwynn’s view, “a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party” on the part of the Irish people. This was not merely hindsight speaking, for shortly after South Longford, a second suggestion was made that the Party MPs resign their seats en masse and allow the country to decide on the choice before it: the constitutional way or…the other way.
Again, Redmond was adamantly against such a step down, as Gwynn described: “He said that it would be a lack of courage: that one or two defeats should not turn us from our course.”
That is, if their course could still be taken. No outlet had argued harder for the IPP candidate than the Longford Leader. In the wake of bitter rejection, however, the newspaper could predict only one end for its political patrons:
It cannot be doubted that in a few years Ireland will have recovered from the present fitful fever, and see the error of its present course, but in the meantime the Irish National Party and programme will be probably a thing of the past, and the people will have only the empty husks of Sinn Féin left.
That such a probability had come about at all was a source of shocked wonder to the Longford Leader, but it did not pretend to see any other. Neither did the IPP itself, not even at its top. “[John Redmond] does not seem to me to realise the situation any more than he did in the winter of 1915-1916,” Dillon wrote cuttingly to T.P O’Connor in November 1917. Come a general election, he predicted, and then “there will be nothing left in Ireland except Republican separatists and Ulster loyalists,” with the IPP confined to history.
He got that right.
Return to Ireland
For some, the day that the IPP was a thing of the past could not come soon enough. When John Redmond warned Westminster that revolution was a-stir in Ireland, he had not been indulging in hyperbole, the proof of which was on full display in Dublin on the Monday morning of the 18th June 1917.
“It was apparent to most citizens when they came within the heart of the city for their day’s business that there was something unusual astir,” wrote the Irish Times, adding sniffily: “The main streets were occupied by people who were not usually abroad at 10 a.m.”
Marching from Westmoreland Station and up Great Brunswick Street came a procession of young men and women, who made their Sinn Féin sympathies clear with the tricoloured flags they waved, the songs they sung, and the group of men in their midst: the one hundred and twenty or so rebel POWs taken during the Easter Rising, newly released from English captivity by a general amnesty.
Onwards over O’Connell Bridge, they crossed into Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the place in which it had all began, and where the sight of the still-ruined General Post Office and other bullet-scarred buildings was enough to inspire a fresh burst of enthusiasm in the crowd. A squad of policemen shadowed the parade, carefully keeping their distance, but no incident occurred as the freed men continued on to Gardiner’s Row, inside Fleming’s Hotel for breakfast and a long-anticipated rest.
As they ate, one of their number, Seán O’Mahony, stepped out to address the adoring young acolytes waiting on the street. This, he told them, was far from the end of what had begun on the Easter Week of 1916, over a year ago but still fresh in Irish memories. He affirmed they were still fighting for the same tricoloured flag under which they had done so already in the Rising, for they believed in actions, not words, and would soon resume the great work that had already begun.
After their rest, the released men resumed their march to the offices in Exchequer Street of the National Aid Association, set up to help alleviate their financial needs, and then to the Mansion House, followed all the way by the multitudes. Such was the press of bodies and the heat that one of the former prisoners fainted.
The day’s display complete, the men went their separate ways, at least for now. Some hurried to catch the evening trains back to their homes in the country, while others continued to be the centres of attention as the celebrations continued in Dublin. “Whenever a released Sinn Feiner, or anyone remotely suspected of being one, was observed, cheers were often raised,” reported the Irish Times.
With their close-cropped hair and conservatively-trimmed beards, it was hard to tell who was who among the freed men. Eoin MacNeill was known to be present, as was W.T. Cosgrave, along with Count Plunkett and Joe McGuinness, the two MPs elected earlier that year on behalf of Sinn Féin for North Roscommon and South Longford respectively.
Worthy names, all, but the most notable one was Éamon de Valera, he who had been in command at Boland’s Mill and now continued to be so over his comrades, as demonstrated earlier that day at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] Pier, when they had first lined up on the boat-deck before crossing the gangway in formation, two by two, on de Valera’s order.
His authority continued to be felt throughout the day. “There appeared to be an arrangement amongst the prisoners not to express their opinions publicly in regard to their treatment in prison,” noted the Irish Times. When asked about that, the men merely said that any official statement was to come from de Valera.
Choices and Omens
It was a name that would soon be on everyone’s lips, for the parliamentary seat of East Clare now lay open with William Redmond’s death, and Sinn Féin was determined to capitalise on its previous two electoral wins by adding a third. The lesson of South Longford was that Joe McGuinness had succeeded, not despite his penal status, but because of it, for Easter Week conferred nobility on a man like nothing else in the eyes of the Irish public.
The choice of another prisoner to contest East Clare was thus essential. Arthur Griffith had been making the case to the Central Election Committee for Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. But, in that, the President of Sinn Féin stood alone. MacNeill’s fateful attempt to cancel the Rising before it could begin, with his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, was too well remembered.
“I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us,” Tom Clarke had instructed his wife, Kathleen, during their final time together in Kilmainhaim Jail while awaiting his execution. “He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country.”
Not all shared this unforgiving view, but none of the Election Committee besides Griffith were about to risk such a controversial choice. De Valera seemed a far safer bet, being already regarded as the leader of the Irish POWs while they were held in Lewes Prison. But, as he and the others had not yet been released, it was unknown if he would accept the nomination if offered. The decision was thus deferred to a later date, and the Sinn Féin activists already sent to East Clare would just have to work without a name in the meantime.
Not that this presented too much of a problem for Dan MacCarthy, the mastermind behind the previous electoral win. If South Longford had been a battlefield in more than the political sense, with riots, stone-throwing and beatings throughout the campaign, then the next constituency was a pleasant surprise to MacCarthy: “I found the people generally more sympathetic than in Longford and I felt that this was a good omen for our cause.”
The speech he gave at Berefield Church, after the priest introduced him from the altar to the congregation, allowed him to gauge the public mood, which appeared to be a positive one. As for the identity of the man on whose behalf MacCarthy was in Clare: “Various rumours went round as far as we were concerned. One time we heard it was Peadar Clancy [another 1916 participant], and the next Eoin MacNeill, and finally it transpired to be de Valera.”
Roads to Take or Not to Take
The decision was not an easy one to make, not least because de Valera had been wrestling with it himself even as he took his first step back on Irish soil. Politics was a field utterly new to him, and one he regarded with some trepidation. When news had reached the Lewes inmates in April 1917 that one of their number, Joe McGuinness, was being nominated to run in the South Longford contest, de Valera was among those against any such forays in the electoral sphere.
Instead, the “safest course for us and in the long run the wisest is to continue as soldiers,” he wrote to a friend on the outside. “The Irish Volunteers…must be kept a permanent force at the country’s back…and we must allow nothing to make us forget it.”
Victory in South Longford made de Valera and many of the others in Lewes revaluate their standoffishness where non-military methods were concerned. After all, the main issue for de Valera, as he explained in a letter to a friend, was not that politics was wrong, but that it was a gamble. “I for one would have to be almost certain of success before I would risk such a stake,” he wrote [underlined in original text].
Success seemed much more likely now, with two by-election wins under Sinn Féin’s belt, but de Valera was still weighing the options by the time of the general release. Patrick McCartan, a long-time Republican activist, found him in a pensive mood on board the ship taking the former prisoners to Dublin.
“Mr de Valera had already been selected to contest County Clare in the Republican interest. He said he knew nothing about politics and did not like them,” McCartan wrote later. “He believed he could do the best work for Ireland by confining his attention to the organisation of the Irish Volunteers.” Having canvassed in South Longford, McCartan had a more contemporary view of the public mood in Ireland and counselled de Valera to wait and see it for himself before committing.
The enthusiastic reception in Dublin was evidently enough for de Valera, and he decided without further ado to stand for East Clare. There were still finishing touches to be done: as de Valera was not actually a member of the party he was to represent, a session of the O’Rahilly Cumann was quickly convened in Pembroke, Dublin, to wave him in.
Even with that settled, another problem reared its head: the MacNeill one. While some wanted him kept away from East Clare, if not drummed out of the movement altogether, de Valera made it clear that the other man’s presence on the campaign was a condition of his own running. In the teeth of opposition, de Valera had his way, and not for the last time, in what was to be an extraordinary career.
Still, resentments simmered. De Valera and MacNeill were seated together on the train to Ennis, along with a number of other Sinn Féin activists, when Countess Markievicz entered. Sighting MacNeill, she gave him a piece of her mind, prompting the harried man to take his leave for another carriage. He was brought back by de Valera, who was having none of such unseemly displays.
“There must be no recriminations,” he told the others sternly. That brought a measure of calm to the journey, if not quite peace, for the MacNeill controversy, and what it meant for Sinn Féin as a whole, would linger on for the better part of the year.
Kathleen Clarke’s War
For Kathleen Clarke, these gestures of solidary towards a man she considered the worst sort of blackguard was one more reason to be troubled by the direction the revolutionary movement, for which her husband had laid down his life, was taking. “When I heard that de Valera had insisted on MacNeill accompanying him to Clare, it confirmed my fears” about what she considered “the demoralising influence of elections.”
Participating in the British parliamentary system was a contentious practice in Ireland. First Charles Parnell, followed by John Redmond, had made it the centre-piece of their drive for Irish self-rule, but true-blue Republicans like Kathleen and Tom Clarke regarded playing the enemy’s game with suspicion, even hostility.
“I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it,” Tom Clarke had told Seán Mac Diarmada nine years earlier, in 1908. After acting as campaign organiser for Sinn Féin’s unsuccessful foray in the North Leitrim by-election, Mac Diarmada had returned to Dublin to merrily recount the cut and thrust of the contest to his friend.
Tom had listened to him in sombre silence before bringing the other man back down to earth. “Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks,” he had scolded. A chastened Mac Diarmada promised to never again besmirch their cause like so.
Eleven years later, and Sinn Féin was trying again, except with far grander ambitions than a single seat, and packing the clout to succeed this time, much to Kathleen Clarke’s dismay. To her, the only way forward was with the gun. All else was a distraction in her mind, but it appeared that now, with efforts now diverted into electioneering, “we might say goodbye to any more fighting.”
And that simply would not do.
She made an exception for South Longford in May 1917 – Joe McGuinness was an Easter Rising alumni, after all – and after rallying some of the other women bereaved by the Rising, such as Áine Ceannt and Margaret Pearse, Clarke threw herself into this new battle. And a battle it could be in a literal sense. While driving back into Longford town after a rally, her car and those of the others in the group were met with a hail of missiles from IPP partisans.
Being at the head of the convoy, along with the Count and Countess Plunkett, Clarke’s vehicle bore the brunt of the deluge. The Countess suffered a bloody nose from a thrown bottle, while Clarke just about escaped worse, thanks to the hard hat she was wearing, when a rock struck her head. “The only injury done was to my feelings,” she recalled. “I was mad enough to want to throw stones back at them.”
This was not an isolated incident. The lane the Sinn Féiners had to take to the hotel that served as their headquarters was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ because, as Clarke put it, “every time we passed it stones and bottles came flying out at us.”
Laying the Cards on the Table
Despite the success at South Longford, Clarke remained dissatisfied, one of the many reasons being her antipathy towards those who were reaping most of the gains, however undeservedly. “After the Rising the press, alluding to it, called it a Sinn Féin Rising. This was not correct; the organisation then called Sinn Féin was not a revolutionary one, and it had been very nearly defunct.”
Such misnaming conveyed instant benefits to some: “The fact that the Rising was now being called a Sinn Féin rising gave Arthur Griffith his chance, one he was quick to seize.” This despite how “the Sinn Féin which grew out of the Rising was a totally different one from that which had been in existence before the Rising.”
If Griffith was suspect, then MacNeill was contemptible. Assuming de Valera had simply not been informed of his responsibility for the countermand, Clarke decided to enlighten him with an invitation to her house in Dundrum, Dublin, for both him and MacNeill, on the 28th July 1917. When they arrived, Clarke was ready with her case for the prosecution:
I told him of the instructions I had received from Tom in Kilmainhaim Jail, that MacNeill must not be permitted to come back into the National life of the country again, for if he was he would in a crisis again act treacherously. I had promised to carry out these instructions if I could.
The sole reason she was hesitating to do just that, she explained, was because of his arrest following the Rising, which bestowed on him a credibility she could not touch. Having said that, she continued:
Circumstances might still tie my hands, and I might not be able to carry out my promise to my husband, but the story of his treachery would not die with me, that I would write it and leave it as documentary proof against him.
And, with that, the interview mercifully drew to an end, Clarke having laid down the gauntlet to MacNeill. De Valera had listened attentively throughout while keeping – the consummate politician already – his thoughts to himself.
Clarke would have been even less thrilled if she knew how close her béte noire had become with the rising star of Sinn Féin. Since their release from Lewes Prison, the two men had been conversing a good deal, and MacNeilll was pleased to learn that the other’s worldview was broadly in line with his own. For the likes of Clarke, it was the Republic or nothing, while MacNeill had only scorn for those “obsessed with the notion that some sort of sacred principle underlay the Republican ideal.”
MacNeill took a more libertarian view. For him, “real freedom consisted in the power to do your own things in your own way and not in any paper definition or a constitutional formula.”
He was careful not to appear too broad-minded, however. When asked for his opinion on which independence policy to pursue, he was as happy as anyone to declare in favour of a Republic, though more out of pragmatism than any deep-seated commitment, as he put it:
It was a matter of comparative indifference for the time what form this independence ought to take so far as I knew there was no practical prospect of setting up an Irish monarchy, and the alternative was an Irish Republic.
In private discussions with de Valera, shortly before the pair set off for East Clare, MacNeill came to believe that the other man “was no more than I was myself, a doctrinaire republican.” Nonetheless, de Valera could appreciate the emotional value of a bold approach, and “urged on me…that the demand for an Irish Republic would present a stronger appeal to the electorate and the public than anything else less definite.”
And so, on that agreed basis, “we fought the Clare Election as Republicans without any qualifications” and won by a steep majority.
Winning the Argument
That by-election, and the subsequent one for Kilkenny City a month later, in August 1917, put MacNeill in the front-line for the struggle for Ireland’s soul. He was assisted in this by Dan MacCarthy, the Sinn Féin Director of Elections, who, having honed his craft in South Longford and East Clare, knew how to run a tight ship. “His method was very thorough and efficient,” MacNeill noted approvingly:
All of us who were understood to be engaged in the work were supplied, each one, with his own programme for the day, handed to him that morning or the evening before. He was told who was to accompany him, to what places he was to go, and what particular person he was to interview.
Under MacCarthy’s direction, MacNeill was dispatched to court “the hard chaws, old unionists and stiff supporters of the Parliamentary Party”, perhaps because, as a former college professor, he would present a reassuringly respectable emissary, as well as one who could handle himself in a debate. When a local worthy in Kilkenny posed to him if it was honourable for one who had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the British monarch to support an Irish Republic, MacNeill asked if he had MPs or army officers in mind.
Both, was the reply.
Thinking quickly on his feet, MacNeill took each point in turn. With regard to the first, he drew on the case of the 1689 rebellion, when James II had been overthrown in favour of the current line of succession, so what worth was an oath there? As for the second, he simply, but effectively, pointed to the example of George Washington.
“I had the best of the argument but,” MacNeill conceded, “I do not think I got the vote.”
Not that it mattered too much, as Sinn Féin won the seat by another landslide. That made four straight defeats for the once-almighty IPP. Flushed with success and warmed by the camaraderie of the campaign-trail, Sinn Féin enjoyed its halcyon days, which were to make for some bittersweet memories when MacNeill looked back on them.
“The spirit of good order and good humour that animated the whole body of adherents of Sinn Féin at that time,” he wrote, “offers a strange contrast to what was experienced after 1921.”
The latter, who had had one son executed after the Rising and with another two in prison, “was impatient of temperate men or means.” If Plunkett blew hot, then Griffith, in contrast:
Sat there like a sphinx, square and solid, like a man of granite, lacking charm – physically or mentality. Griffith had a mind of ice that could freeze Irish histrionic champagne solid. He was the one cold fact in a sea of fantasy.
Which earned him few friends, particularly among the Irish Volunteers, many of whom “disliked and scorned him.” Proof of such feelings soon manifested on the platform in the form of Plunkett’s undisguised anger at the other man, and only a disruption in the audience – when Volunteers on standby manhandled journalists scribbling away in their notebooks, thinking them to be police detectives – gave enough of a break in the proceedings for a truce between Griffith and Plunkett for the rest of the event.
But it seemed only a matter of time before another confrontation and maybe not one that could be so easily dispelled. If the ideal of the Republic was what held the movement together, it could also, conversely, tear it asunder, and Griffith was reluctant to move in too dramatic a direction, lest the ‘middle ground’ of Irish opinion be alienated just when Sinn Féin was poised to win it over.
With that in mind, Sinn Féin activists in the East Clare election were warned to avoid mentioning the Republic to prospective voters…that is, until their candidate publicly declared for such a goal. The listeners roared their approval at de Valera’s words to the extent that “it was a considerable time before he could resume his speech,” recalled one witness, who was aware of what certain others in the party really thought:
The Sinn Féin members of the election committee were very annoyed, but they were not prepared to come to grips with de Valera, and, if his action was commented upon at a committee which followed the public were not aware of any disagreement.
Another insider present in East Clare, the trade unionist William O’Brien, noted how:
In the course of the election campaign, there was a very sharp division between the speakers. De Valera proclaimed his objective to be the Republic, stating that personally that was the only objective he could stand for. Griffith, Milroy and others took the point of view of the old Sinn Féin organisation.
And yet, despite such differences, de Valera and Griffith seemed to get along on a personal level, far better, in any case, than the latter did with the likes of Count Plunkett or Kathleen Clarke. De Valera, Griffith confided to friends during the course of the Clare election, was to be the future leader of Sinn Féin. As well as being younger, Griffith said in another talk, de Valera was a soldier – no small virtue in the current times – and had, in his opinion, all the makings of a statesman.
Which gave some hope for an amiable resolution that would allow Sinn Féin to move forward – that is, if nothing too disastrous struck in the meantime.
That something almost occurred over Kilkenny, with MacNeill as the trigger, when a by-election was announced upon the death of its MP, Pat O’Brien, in July 1917. Despite the lingering controversy over his countermanding order, MacNeill enjoyed a measure of support in Sinn Féin’s grassroots, such as in the Kilkenny Club which wrote to the Dublin headquarters in favour of nominating him to run.
When the Central Executive replied that it would prefer W.T. Cosgrave, whose CV as a Rising combatant and former prisoner made him a more comfortable choice, “we received an indignant reply that they were not to be dictated to by Dublin and they were sending a deputation to Mr MacNeill asking him to stand.”
So remembered Tommy Dillon. As son-in-law to Count Plunkett, Dillon was able to sit in on Executive meetings and so understood the strength of feeling to be found there. While he had nothing personal against MacNeill, certainly not to the extent that Clarke did, he was aware of how “the leaders of the anti-MacNeill group were…influential and the possibility of factions arising could not be ignored” should the question be pushed too far.
It was with this danger in mind that Dillon hurriedly cycled to Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, shortly after the last testy message from Kilkenny, to head off the threatened deputation. Upon reaching the hotel, he was told that the Kilkenny visitors had already left and so he rode on to where he guessed they had gone: the house in Rathfarnham where MacNeill was residing:
When I arrived at the house, a taxi stood in the front grounds. I asked for [MacNeill] and was told that he was engaged. James [MacNeill’s brother], however, brought him out to me and when I told him the object of my visit he said that the Kilkenny deputation was with him, that he understood the situation and that he was about to refuse their invitation.
MacNeill made no mention in his memoirs of this deputation or of Dillon’s last minute intervention. It is possible to suspect, if one were to be cynical, that MacNeill may not have been ‘about to refuse’ like he said, which Dillon did him the favour of believing. Sinn Féin was able to proceed smoothly in Kilkenny, with Cosgrave on its ticket, to score another unambiguous win.
But it could not be ‘touch and go’ for the movement indefinitely, and the upcoming Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, set for October 1917 at the Mansion House, Dublin, seemed the best opportunity to finally bury the hatchet over who ordered what for Easter Week. Which was what some dreaded. A few days beforehand, Countess Markievicz visited Kathleen Clarke’s house in Dundrum to ask her to oppose MacNeill should he be nominated for the new Executive.
Having been ‘advised’ – as she put it – by some against such an act, Clarke declined, while warning the Countess that if she was to lead the anti-MacNeill charge herself, she would do so alone. Never one to be deterred by the odds, Markievicz waited for the Árd Fheis to open and then “stood up and attacked [MacNeill] on the question of the secret countermanding orders.”
To Clarke’s dismay:
Her attack got such a bitterly hostile reception that despite my decision not to support her, I got up and did so. It seemed to me that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.
The moderates had their way, and MacNeill was duly voted to the Executive. Sinn Féin had come a long way since its conception in 1905, to the extent that one of the delegates, Áine Ceannt – widow of the 1916 martyr – wondered out loud if the proceedings should be classed as the first Árd Fehis of a totally new organisation. All the same, it was decided to stick with it being the sixth such event for a continuous Sinn Féin – why bring in unnecessary complications, after all?
For things were complicated enough as they were. The Sinn Féin delegate for South Mayo, Patrick Moylett, had attended a secret meeting of the Irish Volunteers on the evening before the Árd Fheis. Handed to him was a list of names who were to have his vote when proposed for election to the Sinn Féin Executive.
An indignant Moylett replied:
…that if I were to act on his instruction I would be defranchising [sic] the people who sent me and not doing my duty to them. I objected to the fact that in a democratic institution I should be told how I was to vote.
Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were two groups normally in lockstep but, even so, not without moments of disjunction. When the time came the next day for the Executive election at the Árd Fheis, a number of delegates interrupted to announce how they had been canvassed beforehand with such lists, their disapproval of this chicanery made publicly clear.
“I wish to associate myself strongly with what has just been said by the previous speakers,” de Valera said, simultaneously supportive while keen to avoid fingers being pointed at a time of supposed unity. “Those who are responsible had probably the very best motives in view, but when we are beginning – as we are – a new Ireland, it will not be necessary to resort to such methods in future.”
“The sense of the convention is strongly condemnatory of any attempt to run tickets,” added Griffith as president. “If that system were allowed to go on, it would destroy the movement in a few years.”
With that said, the election went ahead, resulting in the appointment of the twenty-four members of the new Executive, along with a change of presidency in the form of de Valera, by unanimous consent when the two other contenders, Griffith and Count Plunkett, as per a prior agreement between them, had the good grace – and political nous – to step back.
In doing so, “a split between the extremists and the moderate section was narrowly averted,” wrote the police report for October. Which was one more worry for the Inspector-General, Joseph Bryce, to give to his employers in Dublin Castle:
The state of political unrest…continued without abatement during the Month, and a marked advance in organization was made by the seditious Sinn Fein movement.
If the Sinn Féin of old under Griffith had been of the moderate persuasion, then now “the majority of Sinn Fein leaders owe their present prominence to active participation in the late rising” with the same zealotry carried over. De Valera was a case in point: from being an obscure teacher, he was now instructing an audience in Co. Clare, with the air of a general marshalling his troops, to ready themselves for an opportune moment to strike again.
Other speeches from Sinn Féin figures were of a similar calibre and, in light of such blatant calls to sedition, Bryce warned:
It is obvious that several are prepared to plunge the country into another rebellion should a favourable opportunity occur, and that the whole movement must be regarded as a serious menace to the state.
And yet, at the same time, “the majority of the adherents of Sinn Fein are believed to be averse to physical force.” For all the talk of war and rebellion repeated, “it will be noticed that drilling activity [of the Irish Volunteers] is so far confined to the S.W. area.”
Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha
This ambiguity over violence was reflected in the Árd Fheis when Father O’Meehan, as one of the delegates, proposed an amendment to the Sinn Féin constitution: that the words “means available”, in regards to obtaining Irish freedom, were to be followed by “deemed legitimate and effective.”
By ‘legitimate’ I mean not according to British rule in Ireland, but according to well-established etheral [?] and Christian principles. Our enemies would, for instance, be glad to say that assassination comes under this, and it is in order to prevent them saying that that I move this addendum.
In case such talk smacked too much of Redmondite ways, “I did not use the word ‘Constitutional’ because that has a bad flavour,” the priest added, earning himself a round of applause.
The proposed change was ultimately withdrawn. Opposing it had been Cathal Brugha, one of the more militant Republicans in the hall. Nothing in their constitution as it stood would lend itself to the interpretation that so concerned Father O’Meehan, Brugha insisted. In any case, the point was moot, as “we do not intend to meet English rule by assassination,” he said firmly.
As for a second Rising, that possibility, when raised, was met with laughter.
If constitutional flavours left a sour taste, and with the other end of the spectrum still too strong to stomach, how then was Sinn Féin to proceed? Father Gaynor hoped to answer this when he next rose to speak. “I have come here as a delegate with the sympathy of the men from Clare to move that we do not set up a political organisation,” he said, “and we have come here in the hope that we will find something better to do.”
Instead of following in the footsteps of the Irish Parliamentary Party with another political machine, Gaynor urged, the convention must establish nothing less than a ruling body with a mandate for the whole country. In doing so:
We should make the position straight by showing that we do not want a Sinn Féin party versus the Irish Party, but a Provisional Government versus Dublin Castle and the British Government.
Which was rather putting the cart before the horse, as many of the other attendees in the hall pointed out. For all the lofty proclamations of nationhood and the Republic, there still remained the gritty task of earning the right to speak for Ireland.
“This organisation is a national organisation in the broadest sense of the term but, all the same, it cannot be regarded as a constituent assembly,” de Valera pointed out. “Surely we have got beyond the stage where politics should be regarded as roguery and politicians as rogues.”
Others would have disagreed. But, while the likes of young Todd Andrews, as he watched John Redmond being hounded in the streets, may have dismissed politicians as a low and dirty breed, Sinn Féin was nonetheless nearing the point where, in beating the system, you become the system.
 Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917), pp. 88-9
Captain Liam Mellows – in Galway – fresh from his escape is in the field with his men.
(James Connolly, in a dispatch during the fighting in Dublin, issued on the 28th April 1916)
Even in the absence of Liam Mellows, confined to England for the foreseeable future, the Irish Volunteers in Galway continued preparing for their upcoming insurrection. Plans had been announced at a convention for the Volunteers in Limerick on Palm Sunday, the 16th April 1916, when a hurling match gave the perfect cover for the delegates from the Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Clare Volunteers to attend.
After a lengthy lecture on military tactics to put the attendees in the right mood, the Galway representatives were taken aside to a room where a map of Ireland was laid out over a table with various positions marked on it. There, it was revealed that the long-gestating Rising, the one they had been building towards all this time, was set to take place a week from then on Easter Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was none the wiser. The Volunteers planned on keeping it that way, right up to the moment they would march in force up to the police barracks and seize them. For that, the RIC would have no one to blame but itself. Its sergeants and constables had spent the past few months idly watching the Volunteers parade and drill in their company units, rehearsing for a revolution in plain sight without a policeman lifting a finger to interfere.
They would continue to do nothing until it was too late, until the Rising was already in unstoppable motion, until Ireland stood free of foreign rule and Saxon exploitation.
Larry Lardner, the O/C of the Irish Volunteers in Galway, had reason to feel uneasy. Sometime in 1915, he had met with a visiting Patrick Pearse while Mellows was indisposed in Arbour Hill Prison. Pearse’s purpose in Galway was to break the news about the decision to stage a rebellion. The details had yet to be formalised but would be passed on in due course to Lardner. The two had even agreed on a coded message, ‘collect the premiums’, chosen due to Lardner’s job as an insurance agent.
On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Eamon Corbett, the Vice-Commandant of the Galway Volunteers (and a future TD for the county), was dispatched to Dublin to attend a high-level meeting in St Edna’s School, which Pearse ran. Corbett returned with the orders for a countrywide uprising, to commence in six days’ time on Easter Sunday, the 22nd April. Even the precise point of 7 pm had been worked out.
But, despite the seemingly straightforward nature of this plan, the code phrase for Lardner to ‘collect the premiums’ had not been included, leaving him unsure. His qualms were further heightened when a contradictory order arrived the following day, on the 18th April, calling off any such rebellion. As this had been signed by Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, it was not something that could be dismissed.
Unsure on how to proceed, the Galway officers held a meeting of their own in the house of a sympathetic priest, Father Harry Feeney, at Clarinbridge. The decision was made for Lardner to head to Dublin himself and get a definite answer out of MacNeill and Pearse. Arriving in the capital on Holy Thursday, the 20th April, Lardner failed to find either man, instead obtaining an interview with the next best thing: Bulmer Hobson, the Secretary of the Irish Volunteers Executive.
Doubts and Decisions
Already suspecting a divergence of opinion among the leaders of the movement, Lardner tried to ascertain from Bulmer what was going on. Bulmer’s advice him not to accept any orders that had not been approved by MacNeill. Which was straightforward enough – except that, by the time Larder returned to Galway, another dispatch was already there and waiting for him. It was from Pearse, telling him at last to ‘collect the premiums’ next Sunday on Easter Week, the 23rd April, at 7 pm.
The use of the code appeared conclusive – until the following day, on Good Friday, the 21st April, saw the appearance of yet another missive, this time from MacNeill, again calling for the Volunteers to stand down and do nothing.
With Lardner paralysed by doubt, the other Galway officers approached his lieutenant, Frank Hynes, to lead them instead. Being no man’s fool, Hynes was instantly wary:
I had been ignored up to this as regards meetings of the council. I said “why do you come to me at the eleventh hour. What about Larry?” They said Larry was funking it.
Unwilling to commit himself quite yet, Hynes first went to see Lardner, finding the Brigade O/C on the verge of despair, pulled this way and that by the conflicting demands. Even consulting the Dublin headquarters had only exasperated things, Lardner complained.
After listening to his tirade, Hynes asked him point blank if he would follow the rest of the men should they marched out to fight on Easter Sunday.
“Oh, I’ll go out alright,” Lardner said.
Hynes was reassured. His commander would not be funking it, after all. But the pair of them were still not precisely clear what ‘it’ was supposed to be.
Mellows, meanwhile, had made good his flight from England, returning to Ireland with the assistance of Nora Connolly and his brother Barney, the latter left in his place in Leeks with no one the wiser. Despite the drama and daring of the escape, the only newspaper to show interest was the Workers’ Republic – unsurprisingly so, considering how its editor was James Connolly, Nora’s father, who had sent his daughter on the rescue mission in the first place:
STOP PRESS. – RESCUE OF LIAM MELLOWS
We are at liberty to announce that Liam Mellows, the energetic Organiser of the Irish Volunteers who was recently deported to England, has been rescued, and is now safe back in Ireland.
Although this rescue took place more than a week ago the British Authorities have resolutely refused to publish the fact up to the present.
Returning to Dublin gave Mellows the chance to catch up with friends, including Con Colbert, and they stayed up the whole night together singing rebel songs and having pillow-fights.
On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Éamonn Ceannt – who would soon command the Irish Volunteers in defending the South Dublin Union – suggested to his wife, Áine, that they take their 10-year-old son, Ronan, for a trip to St Edna’s. As the school was closed for the holidays, it would be quiet enough. Besides, he had no intention of remaining where he could be found and arrested anytime by the authorities.
That morning was a glorious one, with the birds singing on the branches of fruit trees in full blossom. Áine saw a smiling young man in clerical garb approach them from an avenue of trees. The ‘priest’ clasped her hand and then shook young Ronan’s.
“An aithnigheann tú é [did you recognise me]?” Mellows asked the child.
“Aithnighin [I did],” replied Ronan, who had been well-schooled in Irish.
Patrick and Willie Pearse soon joined them in the garden, along with their sister Margaret and their mother. A pleasant meal was then had, the talk ranging from books to music, with not a word said about the fight they all knew was coming.
Afterwards, Áine and her son were sent to wait in the front grounds while the men talked. When Éamonn rejoined them, it was to give his wife her instructions. It was then that Áine realised that the visit had been intended as much for business as pleasure. She was to accompany Mellow’s mother, Sarah, to St Edna’s under the cover of night for her to say goodbye to her son before he set off for Galway the following day, on the 18th April.
Áine and Sarah arrived at the school at about 9:30 pm, having changed trams four or five times on the way as a precaution. The building was in complete darkness, with not a light dared lit, as the two women were allowed in. Sarah found her way in the dark to the backroom where Liam was while Áine sat and waited in the pitch-black hall. Mother and son would not see each other again for the next five years.
Road to Galway
While moving through the country, Mellows took the opportunity to pass on instructions from Dublin to the Irish Volunteer companies he met. In a detour, he informed the Wexford men of their assigned role to keep the line of communications open between the capital and Munster. Secrecy was paramount: “None of those present were told of any specific date for a rising, but all were cautioned of the very confidential nature of the discussions.”
So recalled W.J Brennan-Whitmore, another visitor from Dublin, in his memoirs. It was late at night by the time the meeting was over and Brennan-Whitmore began the trek back to the big city, where he would command the defence of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. Mellows walked him to the bridge over the Slaney at the town of Scarawalsh.
“It was a beautiful night, calm and still, with a full moon riding high in the cloudless heavens,” Brennan-Whitmore remembered:
We were sitting chatting on the parapet of the bridge when the cathedral clock struck the witching hour of midnight. We decided to call it a day, shook hands and parted, he to travel to the west to take up his own command there, I to travel to Dublin. It was destined to be the last time we ever met.
From there, Mellows travelled in a north-westerly direction until he reached Co. Westmeath. As in Wexford, he passed on to the waiting Volunteers their instructions, these being to blow up strategic sites such as the bridge at Shannonbridge, Co. Offaly, before advancing westwards to connect with their Galway comrades.
While in Westmeath, Mellows took the opportunity to stop by the house of an acquaintance, Father Casey. Mellows had changed his usual disguise of a clergyman to that of a beggar, complete with dark dye for his distinctive fair hair. Father Casey had a nagging feeling that he knew this stranger asking for alms at his door, but it was not until his visitor had left that realisation hit him. Casey ran to the gate but Mellows was already out of sight.
Return to Galway
Later, on the afternoon of Spy Wednesday, the 19th April, the Manning family in Mullagh, Co. Galway, were visited by Eamon Corbett to tell them that Mellows would be coming to stay the night with them. Corbett had arrived on foot, his motorcar having broken down, and he was given a bicycle to ride on instead.
When Mellows arrived, he was again dressed as a priest, with some greasepaint over his face, and riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a friend from Dublin. The friend did not stay for long, leaving Mellows to the hospitality of the Mannings.
The 27-seven-year old son of the family, Michael, had seen Mellows before when the latter arrived in Mullagh in May of 1915 to inspect the Volunteers there, of which Michael was a member. Mellows spent five or six days training the men in various forms of night attack. He had planned to return later in the summer but was imprisoned instead until November.
Mellows regaled the Mannings with a lively account of his flight from Britain, chuckling at how a dockhand in Belfast had fallen on his knees to ask for a blessing, obliging Mellows to mutter something appropriately Latin-sounding. He brushed off concerns of the RIC recognising him in Galway, saying he had passed by several police barracks already without arousing suspicion.
He said nothing to the family about what he intended to do now that he was back in Galway, but the fully-loaded pistol he placed under his pillow at night and the book on military history he was carrying along with his green uniform shirt – the only luggage he had – must have given them some clue.
He did confide to Michael and his brother about the plans set for Easter Sunday. A notice to the press about a parade in Gort on the day was to be the signal for a general mobilisation of the Galway Volunteers. They would then march from Gort to Portumna, where they would be supplied with rifles sent up the Shannon from Kerry, where a German vessel was due to land with the weapons. It was a complicated plan, but Mellows was sure that their European partners would pull through for them.
Despite his cavalier attitude towards being recognised, Mellows was careful to remain indoors the following morning. He sent Michael to Loughrea with a note for Joseph O’Flaherty to alert him of his intention to spend the night there, preferably at his house. As O’Flaherty was an old Fenian and well-known to Mellows, he was delighted to oblige and sent Michael back with a message to that affect.
At the Manning household, Mellows swapped his priestly garb for an ordinary suit, given to him by Michael’s brother. As he left for Loughrea, he took an ash stick under his arm as if on his way to the cattle-fair that was occurring there the following day, Good Friday, the 21st April.
Michael attended the fair as part of his instructions to deliver a parcel to Mellows with his shirt and book inside. After buying and selling some cattle, Michael came to O’Flaherty’s house as arranged, found Mellows in bed and handed over the parcel.
Back in Galway
Other preparations were being made for Mellows’ return. On Maundy Thursday, the 20th April, Bridget Walsh, a schoolteacher who acted as a courier for the Volunteers, was sent to Dublin to bring back a message for him. She called in at the tobacco shop owned by Tom Clarke on Great Britain [now Parnell] Street.
Besides Clarke, Walsh met a number of leading figures in the revolutionary movement, such as Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael O’Hanrahan and Lardner, who was also visiting Dublin as part of his quest to find out what was going on. Larder told her that the rebellion in the works was now cancelled, throwing in some caustic remarks towards Eoin MacNeill and his incessant meddling.
After handing Clarke a couple of dispatches from Galway, Walsh received in return a package for Mellows. She assumed it contained a gun or ammunition, or perhaps both, and was only told later that it held the rest of Mellow’s uniform besides the shirt he was carrying.
Meanwhile, back in Galway, Mellows was escorted from Loughrea by three Volunteers from the Clarinbridge Company, one of them being Patrick Walsh, Bridget’s brother. Each of the trio took turns to carry their guest on the backs of their bicycles until they reached the village of Killeenen, where Mellows was to remain at the home of Mrs Walsh, another schoolteacher and Bridget’s mother.
It was an appropriate choice of lodgings since the local battalion also used it as its headquarters. Mrs Walsh would be remembered as “a grand type of Irishwoman…She and her family were heart and soul with the Volunteers.” Her friendship with her guest was a strong one. “She adored Mellows and he held her on the highest esteem,” said one Volunteer.
For the next few nights, Volunteers were posted with revolvers on the roads leading to Walsh’s house, their instructions being to bar any suspicious-looking strangers. Until Easter Monday, when the need for secrecy could finally be cast aside, Mellows was careful to only venture out in disguise.
The Mullagh Company held a hurling match on Easter Sunday, the 23rd April, as instructed by headquarters in Athenry, in order to provide cover for an address by Mellows. As before, Mellows went dressed as a priest, complete with black hair dye. When he passed one of the Volunteers, Laurence Garvey, on the road, he went as far as to ask if he recognised him. Despite Mellows having stayed at the Garvey family house while on inspection tours, Garvey replied in the negative.
When Garvey recalled Mellows’ address to the Mullagh Company, it was notable, in hindsight, in what was not said, as Garvey was sure that nowhere was anything about an insurrection mentioned. Mellows stayed until 3 pm when he left on a bicycle, accompanied by Eamon Corbett, with his audience none the wiser.
Playing it by ear, Larder and Hynes allowed the Volunteers to muster as originally planned. Without telling the Athenry Company anything else, Hynes informed them they were having a parade on the morning of Easter Sunday, before attending Holy Communion as a group. Similar orders were sent out to the other companies in Galway.
Well-trained by now, the men turned out in force as ordered, many wearing bandoliers and haversacks, although only Lardner had a uniform. Having paraded, the company was starting towards the church when a bulletin came through. It was from MacNeill, and it read: No action to be taken today. Volunteers completely deceived.
After a hurried meeting by the company officers, it was agreed to issue dispatches of their own about this abrupt change of plans. There was to be no Rising after all. With that sorted, Hynes went to work the following Monday, thinking that everything had at last been settled.
He was wrong. Returning to his home for dinner, Hynes received word that he was to go to the hall used by the Volunteers. “When I went down Larry was there and his face was a placard in which trouble could be read easily,” Hynes recalled.
Lardner handed Hynes the latest written directive, this time from Pearse: Going out today at noon; issue your orders. Which could only mean one thing – the uprising was back on.
At a loss for what to do, the two men ratified all the companies they could. Upon been told that Mellows was back in Galway and now staying in Killeeneen – it says much about the general state of disarray that Hynes did not seem to be aware of this already – the pair sent a message to him, asking him for instructions. His reply was that they should not do anything until he came over.
By now, everyone had heard about the fighting in Dublin. The RIC had also been caught wrong-footed but they recovered more quickly than the Volunteers. In Athenry, policemen in outlying outposts were withdrawn and concentrated in houses adjacent to the barracks, making the building too daunting to attack.
One of the leading organisers for the Galway Volunteers, Alf Monaghan, was to lament the opportunities squandered in the confusion, for the RIC:
…had apparently not suspected anything, and if the original plans had been carried out, it is probable that all the barracks in the county could have been taken without a fight. In Athenry alone all the police, except one man in the barracks were at Benediction on Sunday night, and most of them went for a stroll afterwards.
So sudden had the reversal in policy been, according to Monahan, that “it is recorded that one Company actually received the countermanding order as they took up a position around the local RIC Barracks on Sunday night.”
In Athenry, the only thing left for the Volunteers to do was prepare themselves in case of attack, with about a dozen of them staying in Hynes’ house on Monday night. Next morning, Lardner and Hynes made the decision to move the company towards Oranmore and unite with Mellows there. Then they would leave it to him to figure out what was what.
Elsewhere in the Galway, Easter Sunday had been equally anticlimactic for the Irish Volunteers. In Clarinbridge, the Volunteers attended Mass in Roveagh village, as instructed, breakfasting afterwards on the church grounds, the food cooked by women in Cumann na mBan who were accompanying their male comrades. Mellows was present, as was Father Harry Feeney, Patrick ‘the Hare’ Callanan and Corbett as the company captain.
After several hours of waiting around, Corbett finally dismissed the men at 3 pm, telling them nothing more than not to stray far from their homes in readiness of any further mobilisations. At least one of his listeners did not take these instructions too seriously, for Martin Newell set off the next morning to Tawin village, twelve miles from his home in Clarenbridge, to purchase some seaweed.
Newell was on his way back when he met ‘the Hare’ Callanan, the Brigade Chief of Scouts, who was cycling rapidly towards him. Callanan leapt off his bike to tell Newell to hurry on to Killeeneen, for their Dublin compatriots were already in open revolt even as they spoke.
It was at about 2 pm on Easter Monday, the 24th April, when it was Mellows’ turn to learn how behind in the times he was. Father Feeney rushed to the Walsh household with the news that the Dublin Volunteers had been out since noon. Galvanised, Mellows instantly sent out dispatches to as many companies in Galway as he could, ordering them to mobilise and prepare to play their part.
One of the messengers sent out was Michael Kelly. He was called over to the Walsh house, where Mellows had gathered Corbett, Father Feeney and several others. Mellows asked him if he knew the area around Peterswell. When the other man replied that he did, Mellows gave him a message to take to the Ballycahan Company. Another man, Patrick Kelly (no relation), was to accompany him, each with a revolver and orders to resist should the RIC attempt to detain them.
The two men did as they were ordered, and received assurances that the Ballycahan men would be standing by. They returned to the Walsh home, only to find that Mellows and the others had already left for Clarinbridge.
‘Mid Cannon Boom and the Roar of Gun
When Newell reached Killeeneen, as instructed by Callanan, he was sent by Corbett to tell the rest of the sixty-strong Clarinbridge Company to come fully armed. All the Volunteers assembled as ordered that night, with Mrs Walsh sacrificing her family’s breakfast to feed the men for supper.
At 8 am on the Tuesday, the 25th April, the Company lined up outside the Walsh house, poised on the brink of no return. Corbett performed a rousing song, with the chorus of:
And, with that, the men began the four mile march towards their first target of Clarinbridge. Bridget Walsh watched them as they took their leave of her mother’s house, and could not help but notice how only a few had firearms in the form of shotguns, with the rest carrying pitchforks as a primitive substitute, while uniforms were limited to a handful such as Mellows and Corbett.
At least Newell was able to retrieve some stored ammunition from Killeeneen School. As he described:
We continued through the demesne and arrived at the convent gate, Clarenbridge [old spelling], where we halted and given right turn. Mellows, standing at the right-hand side of the company, addressed us. He asked for twelve Volunteers to step out. Practically the whole company stepped forward.
Spoilt for choice, Mellows picked a dozen men to act as the vanguard as the company entered the village and laid siege to the RIC barracks there. First blood was shed when a policeman was caught outside and shot when he reached for his revolver. As the Volunteers were in a merciful mood, and the county not yet embittered by years of conflict, the wounded constable was removed to the convent for medical treatment.
The attack on the barracks was interrupted when the parish priest, Father Tully, came to remonstrate with Mellows, urging him to cease and desist. Mellows refused unless the RIC men surrendered and asked Tully to convey this to the barracks. The priest did so, but the policemen inside declined and the attack resumed.
Michael and Patrick Kelly followed in their wake, meeting other Volunteers posted as sentries a mile outside the village, from where they heard the sounds of gunfire. “The attack was still going on when we arrived,” Michael remembered. “The whole company was there, all firing at the barracks at a range of about fifty yards.”
There was a barricade on the Oranmore Road made of Mineral water boxes, with Volunteers behind the barricades to prevent reinforcements from reaching the barracks. All the approaches to the village were barricaded and all traffic held up. About midday or 1 p.m. the attack was called off.
“Mellows was in full charge,” Michael stressed. Other than the constable at the start, it had been a bloodless battle: “No Volunteer was wounded. There was no RIC man wounded inside Clarenbridge barracks during the attack.”
Seeing how they were only wasting time and bullets, Mellows ordered the barricades to be taken down. The Volunteers departed for Oranmore village, where they met up with two more companies, the Oranmore and Maree ones, who had already made an unsuccessful attempt on the RIC there. As with Clarinbridge, the police garrison were holed up inside the barracks, with the exception of their sergeant, trapped in another building in the village.
Mellows decided to continue the assault despite receiving news of police reinforcements on the way to Oranmore by train. He sent for Michael Kelly and Michael Cummins, assigning the former to the station to see if the enemy had arrived yet and, if so, in what strength. As for Kelly:
He sent me to the forge near the Sergeant’s house with a section of about six men with instructions not to allow the Sergeant to leave his house. The Sergeant made no attempt to leave his own house.
The Connacht Tribune gave the officer in question a slightly more heroic role – unsurprisingly, given how it was Sergeant Healy who told the newspaper the story. Healy had been one of the two policemen out on patrol that morning, leaving four constables behind in the barracks.
When Healy saw the two companies of Volunteers advancing towards Oranmore, he was careful to take a circuitous route along the sea coast to avoid detection while returning to the village (the other RIC man, Constable MacDermott, being not so cautious, was taken prisoner). By the time Healy arrived, the Volunteers were already there, with his four subordinates fortified within their barracks.
Lacking any other options, Healy retreated to the house of Constable Smyth, opposite the barracks. He watched as about thirty-five Volunteers rushed the barracks, only to be driven back by rifle-shots from inside.
As the Connacht Tribune reported:
Immediately Sergeant Healy had got with the shelter of Constable Smyth’s house, he sent orders across to the men in the barracks as to how they were to act and communications were sent to Galway for reinforcements.
Half an hour later, one of the assailants came to Smyth’s door and demanded the surrender of everyone inside. When Mrs Smyth insisted that there was no one else present, the men grew menacing. Healy warned the messenger at the door to go or he would fire.
Instead, the Volunteers began battering at the door until Healy shot through the panels, forcing them to flee down the street. They did not return, contenting themselves instead with taking potshots at the barracks.
Cummins, meanwhile, had ridden his bicycle to the station and found that enemy reinforcements had already pulled in, one of whom missing a shot at Cummins as he peddled rapidly away to warn the others. Michael Kelly later numbered the RIC to around forty. More precisely, the Connacht Tribune put the Crown relief force down to twenty-two – ten policemen under the overall command of the County Inspector, and ten soldiers from the Connaught Rangers, including their captain.
Together, they marched at a smart pace towards Oranmore, scattering the villagers who had been drawn outside their homes by the novelty of a siege. An attempt by the Volunteers to disable a bridge on the way was abandoned, the discarded crowbars testifying to the speed of their flight.
Upon nearing the barracks, the mixed police-military force came briefly under fire by shotguns and rifles from the turn of the road leading to Athenry. This rebel rearguard then departed from Oranmore with the rest of their compatriots in commandeered motorcars.
“The whole random affair appears to have been over in less time than it takes to write it,” sniffed the ConnachtTribune.
According to Newell, Mellows:
…was the last to leave and took cover at the gable of Reilly’s public-house until the RIC arrived in the village from the station and, when they were about to enter the RIC barrack, he opened fire on them with, I think, an automatic pistol from a distance of 25 yards.
In Kelly’s version, he, Cummins and a few others had remained behind with their leader after Mellows had ordered the rest of the three companies to withdraw towards Athenry. The soldiers and policemen took cover beside the houses on either side of the road and did not retaliate, waiting instead for their assailants to leave.
Though bullet had whizzed perilously close to the County Inspector’s head, no harm was done, the only police loss being the missing MacDermott, believed (accurately) to have been captured. Not wishing to linger lest the rebels return with their superior numbers, Sergeant Healy and his remaining four constables left Oranmore by train with their rescuers after first stripping anything of value from the barracks.
It was dark by the time the three Volunteer companies arrived at the Agricultural School, about a mile out of Athenry. Close as it was to a railway line by which further British forces could arrive, the School was not an ideal stop but, for want of anywhere else, Mellows decided to make it his temporary headquarters. The companies from Athenry, Craughwell, Newcastle, Derrydonnell and Cussane trickled in throughout the night, with the Castlegar and Claregalway men arriving in the Wednesday morning of the 26th April.
The last two had been fetched by Callanan. After being dispatched by Mellows on Monday evening, he had been in a whirlwind of activity, successfully rousing the Volunteers in Castlegar and Claregalway, as well as those in Maree and Oranmore. Galway City was a failure, however, as Callanan was unable to get in touch with anyone from the Volunteers there. As for the Moycollen Company, its captain promised Callanan that he would mobilise his men and also pass on word to the Spiddal Company. He failed to do either, but Callanan had other things to worry about by then.
Callanan returned in time to find Mellows and the Clarinbridge Company marching towards Oranmore. Mellows assigned him to go back and bring the Claregalway and Castlegar men to join him in Oranmore. By the time Callanan and the two companies arrived, the Crown relief force was already present and holding the bridge, blocking any attempt to follow in the wake of Mellows’ group.
Luckily, Callanan was able to learn that the main force was in the Agricultural School. As it was too late to journey to Athenry, he billeted his men in nearby Carnmore. Having first posted watchmen on the village outskirts, Callanan settled in for the night until awoken by gunshots.
The sentries had opened fire on a convoy of six or seven cars coming from the direction of Galway City. The vehicles pulled up by the road and their RIC occupants exchanged shots with the Volunteers sheltering behind stone walls.
Meanwhile, Callanan was hastily assembling the rest of his men, before they beat a hasty retreat out of Carnmore. The police did not pursue, instead driving forlornly back to Galway City with the corpse of Constable Patrick Whelan, a bloody hole in the side of his head, the 34-year-old native of Kilkenny being the sole fatality of Galway’s Easter Rising.
The Agricultural School
A second shootout with the RIC occurred later on Wednesday morning when the sentries posted in a hut on the Agricultural School grounds were surprised to see a group of seven policemen advancing up the road with rifles primed. Alerted to the threat, Hynes set out with six others. They opened fire on the RIC who withdrew back towards Athenry, returning shots as they did so.
Hynes, Lardner and the rest of the Athenry Company had reunited with Mellows the night before at the School. When composing his story for posterity years later, Hynes would feel an acute need to address the question he was sure lurked in the heads of his readers:
Anyone reading this account would be inclined to think that we were acting in a rather cowardly manner – why did we not attack the barrack at Athenry? Why did we keep retreating, etc, etc?
The explanation he gave was that while the Volunteers numbered between five and six hundred, they had only fifty full service rifles between them, with the rest of the army having to make do with shotguns, inferior .22 rifles and a dozen pikes. Ammunition was equally scarce, and some men were not armed at all. Bombs had been made, but these were so useless that Hynes doubted they would injure a man even if they exploded in his hand.
Alf Monahan took an equally sceptical view on their chances: “Over 500 men assembled at the [Agricultural School], but a great part of them had no firearms of any sort. In fact, there were only 35 rifles and 350 shotguns, all told.”
As for the plan to land three thousand German rifles in Co. Kerry, to be moved by rail and distributed all along the line to Galway to the eagerly waiting Volunteers, that lay in tatters, ruined by a fatal combination of the gun-running ship being unable to unload, the arrest of Roger Casement and the accidental drowning in Kerry of the three Volunteers (one of whom, Charles, was Alf’s brother) who were to distract the Royal Navy with fake radio signals.
Despite this grievous setback and the equally worrying paucity of weapons, morale remained high. “All were in the best of humour and full of pluck,” remembered Monahan.
Some of the men present had not even been in the Irish Volunteers before but were showing their willingness to contribute, whether for the national cause or more acrimonious reasons. Bridget Walsh described how a pair of Connemara men offered their services on the grounds that: “If you are going sticking peelers [policemen] we are with you.”
Lardner was present as Brigade O/C but Mellows was undoubtedly the one in command. At a council of war, it was suggested by the officers present that their small army be divided into columns with which to wage a guerrilla war, but this was unanimously rejected. Instead, the decision was made to move on to Moyode Castle, five miles away.
As they left the Agricultural School, Mellows confided to Callanan his determination to never yield, not while there was still a scrap of hope. Help was likely to arrive soon, he added, with the Volunteers of Limerick and Clare sure to rally to their aid.
Practically empty save for a single caretaker, Moyode Castle posed no difficulty in capturing. It was, in Monahan’s view, “not a good place to put in a state of defence, as there were large windows all around it.” Still, it was at least roomier than the School had been, allowing for the various companies to be allocated their own quarters. They had by then collected five RIC prisoners, who were kept under watch.
The next morning, on the Thursday of the 27th April, Mellows drove out with several others on a reconnaissance mission, calling on a number of houses to inquire after any enemy movements. Upon nearing the New Inn RIC Barracks, Mellows decided to risk further investigation. They found it had been evacuated except for two women, who told Mellows that they were the only ones there. When Mellows said he would give the building a search all the same, one of the women, visibly nervous, admitted that her husband, the barracks sergeant, was there after all, being ill in bed upstairs.
According to Stephen Jordan, one of the other Volunteers present (and another TD-to-be), “Mellows then requested her to go to the room and tell her husband that he wanted to ask him some questions, and to tell him not to be anxious as no harm would come to him.”
Jordan accompanied his leader into the bedroom, where Mellows questioned the sergeant about the size of the former garrison and where they would have left for. The stricken policeman replied that they had received an order to go to Loughrea and the rest had departed before daybreak, taking everything of value with them.
“The Sergeant seemed very relieved on account of Mellows’ gentlemanly manner,” remembered Jordan. “We returned to Moyode without further incident.”
An incident was had, however, later that day, when Mellows assigned Jordan to lead a foraging party. They went to a farm at Rahard and were loading two carts with potatoes – with or without the owner’s permission was left unstated in Jordan’s later account – when a body of policemen pedalled into range on bicycles. Both sides reached for their weapons and opened fire, the sounds enough to reach Moyode Castle and prompt a rescue party of two or three carloads of Volunteers to drive out immediately.
By the time these reinforcements, headed by Mellows, arrived on the scene, the RIC had fallen back. After Jordan delivered a brief summary of what had transpired, Mellows gathered the men back into their cars and set off in pursuit of the police, who retreated further as fast as they could, reaching the safety of Athenry before the Volunteers could overtake them.
Not so easily vanquished was the booming of artillery from the direction of Galway Bay as a British battleship, the HMS Gloucester, tried unsuccessfully to fix a target on the rebel base. The sounds were heard as far as the Castle throughout Wednesday to Friday, with the Volunteers deciding that this was from a duel between the Royal Navy and German submarines. Regardless of how their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ had failed in delivering the much-missed rifles, the Galway men could still entertain the hope that they were not fighting alone.
“The Moyode garrison was well equipped with rumour,” Monahan recalled dryly, but there was nothing known for sure about what was happening in Dublin or the rest of the country.
Other than during the potato-hunting foray, there were no sightings of any police or soldiers, though that did not prevent talk of an imminent attack. Even years afterwards, that such gossip came about at all still grated on Hynes:
We will give the bearers of these false rumours the charity of our silence, but one in particular who was responsible for most of them was a very prominent republican and a member of the I.R.B. up to Easter Week. This man did his best to get us to give up and go home and have sense. He brought one particular rumour that five or six hundred soldiers were marching on us from Ballinasloe.
A meeting of the officers was called on the strength of this particular warning. Much to Hynes’ shame, one or two of those present were sufficiently unnerved to openly consider the naysayer’s advice to quit and return home, so disgusting Mellows that he handed over command to Lardner, who probably wanted the responsibility least of all.
An hour was enough for Mellows to calm down and resume authority. He made his way through the castle, talking to the men and answering any entreaties as to the situation. They could hold out for a month, he told them, by moving south to the Clare Hills.
This was too much for some. When Monahan addressed the Volunteers on Thursday night, offering anyone with second thoughts the chance to leave, about two hundred – roughly a third of the force – decided to do so. They first gave up their weapons, overcoats and anything else of use to those staying, though some of these waverers returned the following day.
By then, the Volunteers had been stirred into action when a scout returned with the news of nine hundred British troops on the march towards the Castle. Unlike previous reports, this one was broadly accurate, as anyone with a copy of the Connacht Tribune would have read of how:
We regret to say that we at last (for good or ill) now approaching the conditions of a regular trial of military strength as between the Crown forces and what, we suppose, may be described as the Insurgents.
Information was vague, admitted the newspaper; indeed, it wildly overestimated the rebels to be two thousand-strong. More certain was of the aim of the British State: “It was known last [Friday] night that the authorities intended to take the initiative.” Royal Navy marines had landed in Galway Bay, their strategy seeming to be to join the rest of the military in catching the said insurgents with a pincer-move.
There was no question inside Moyode Castle of allowing this to happen, and the debate arose again as to whether it would be better to disband or retreat in good order. The latter was decided on, and Mellows arranged the companies in marching order. Never afraid to risk himself, he took charge of the Athenry Company, alongside Corbett and Hynes, which was assigned to be the rearguard, where fighting was most likely to break out should the British forces catch up with them.
The Volunteers marched along by-roads to the east of Craughwell, making it to Monksfield by nightfall. The plan was to reach Co. Clare and obtain enough help from the Volunteers there to fight their way to Limerick, where further reinforcements hopefully awaited.
Amongst the rearguard, Michael Kelly saw that they were being tailed by two men on bicycles. All he could make of them was that they were dressed in black. Kelly ordered the other men to take cover while he called on the strangers to halt. The pair were riding so fast that they sped straight into the midst of the Volunteers before they could stop.
Up close, Kelly could see that they were priests. When the two asked to see Mellows, a suspicious Kelly questioned them closely, learning that their names were Father Fahy and Father O’Farrell. He was not certain but he thought he caught something from them about Dublin.
Father Thomas Fahy first met Mellows when the latter arrived in Galway, early in 1915. When Fahy, then a professor at Ballinasloe College, had asked Mellows if the Irish Volunteers really intended to fight, he was taken aback at the assurance that they did indeed. With the coming of Easter Week in 1916, the priest saw the truth of those words for himself.
Father Fahy was at home near Athenry when he heard of the Volunteers taking up arms, just as Mellows had promised. Eager to play his part, albeit in a spiritual capacity, Fahy visited the gathered men in Moyode Castle every day to hear their confessions. While doing so, he took the opportunity to talk with Father Feeney, who was accompanying the Volunteers as an impromptu chaplain.
Feeney had asked him to go to Galway City to find out the views of their Church superiors. While Fahy was not able to meet Bishop O’Dea, other priests assured him that His Grace fully approved of Feeney’s aid to the rebels.
It was while in Galway City that Father Fahy heard that the Volunteers had suddenly departed from the Castle in favour of the abandoned country house of Limepark. Joining Father O’Farrell, they cycled towards the new base to catch up with his martial congregation.
The priests were taken to Limepark, where the officers heard what they had to say. Mellows was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. He had fallen asleep and so missed Father Fahy breaking some startling news. “They had definite information that Dublin had given in and that the soldiers in Galway were aware of our movement and were marching to meet us,” Hynes described.
Kelly, who was sitting on a windowsill and listening in, would recall much the same thing: “I heard one of the priests telling all the officers assembled about the surrender in Dublin.”
In this, the two witnesses were either misremembering or the priests had been confused, for the Dublin rebels would not formally concede until later that day, on Saturday afternoon. Whatever the truth, the already tenuous situation for the Galway men suddenly felt desperate.
The only thing left for the Volunteers to do, Fahy urged, was to acknowledge the inevitable and disperse while they still could. Monahan stoutly insisted that they continue to resist. The others were not so sure. Unwilling to voice his own doubts, Hynes equivocated, saying that they should wake Mellows and hear what he had to say.
After Mellows had had Father Fahy repeat the latest developments to him, he apologised for having been asleep. But, he said, he had brought the men out to fight, not flee. Even if he was to disband them, what then? They would be shot down like rabbits without a chance to defend themselves.
As for him, he would hand over his command to whoever wanted it. He was going to catch up on three days’ worth of sleep until the British arrived, and then he would battle it out with them to the last.
Listening to this, Hynes knew that Mellows meant every word. Father Fahy tried a different tack, suggesting that the rest of the Volunteers should have the chance to discuss their options. Mellows argued that this was not necessary, for he had already put the question of continued resistance to the men in Moyode Castle, and every one of them had agreed to persevere. Fahy pressed on, asking if the rest of the officers who were not present could be consulted. After some hesitation, Mellows gave in and agreed to this.
At the subsequent meeting, Father Fahy outlined the situation to the fourteen officers present. Mellows continued to hold that it would be better to fight it out as their lives were forfeit anyway, considering how the five RIC captives of theirs would be able to identify everyone. When asked about this, the prisoners agreed to give no such information upon release, a promise they were to uphold.
At the end, the officers voted to disband, the only dissenters being Mellows and the faithful Monahan. For an alternative, Monahan urged for the Volunteers to take to the open country and pursue guerrilla tactics, as suggested before, but nobody seemed to be listening at that particular point.
When Father Fahy asked for this to be relayed to the men, Mellows excused himself, unwilling to ask a single man to leave after bringing them this far. And so the priest took on the task instead when the men had assembled outside Limepark House. Galway had done well but since they now stood alone, he told them, there was no point in carrying on. Better for them to return to their homes quietly and prepare for another day.
“Mellows did not address the men,” Father Fahy later wrote. “He was very depressed; the news from Dublin had upset him greatly.”
Despite his own low spirits, Mellows did his best to console the others, many of whom were weeping openly. Those who offered to stay with Mellows were turned down. Things would blow over, he assured them. When one man noticed how Mellows lacked a coat and offered his own, Mellows accepted it only with reluctance.
Hynes was among the last Mellows approached to say farewell. Hynes told him he was staying with him, inwardly hoping the other man would not order him away like he had done with the others.
Instead, Mellows took his hand between both of his and said: “God bless you.”
Soon, the only ones remaining were Mellows, Hynes and Monahan. They were about to re-enter the old house when Mellows announced that it would be preferable to make a running fight of it rather than remain inside to be cornered. The other two agreed, as they probably would have to anything their leader suggested, and so the three of them set out together, towards an uncertain future.
This is a difficult work to get to grips with, given how wildly uneven it is in tone. “I do not propose to write anything like a record of the proceedings, but only to put on record certain facts and certain aspects of the facts within my personal knowledge,” is how the author put it, although Eoin MacNeill could surely have been more discerning on which facts to choose for posterity.
Take, for instance, MacNeill’s tale that was offered as part of a storytelling contest among his colleagues in the Irish Volunteers. While travelling by train from Dublin to Belfast, MacNeill related, he took out his pipe and tobacco pouch, only to be reprimanded by a young man seated nearby who told him that this was a non-smoking compartment. A short while later, one of the two men who had been sitting on either side of the objector leaned over to tell MacNeill to smoke away as they were in the process of bringing their companion to an institution (presumably a mental one).
This was the winning entry, and earned MacNeill the prize of a new pipe, appropriately enough. MacNeill inserts this tale in between describing the efforts to obtain guns for the Irish Volunteers – culminating in the Howth Gun-Running in July 1914 – and it is hard to know why MacNeill bothered with such a pointless interlude.
A better editor was desperately needed here, one who could tell MacNeill which anecdotes to keep and which ones should be dumped. Ita Mallon tried to be that editor.
MacNeill began work in 1932, dictating them initially to a journalist, Leila Carroll, over an 11-year period. The project tapered off until 1939, when MacNeill resumed work with the help of Mallon, who was also a journalist.
Mallon did her best to prod MacNeill into livening up the material, such as advising him to include some information on the Boundary Commission (of which MacNeill was part), and suggesting a chapter entitled ‘Famous Men I Have Met’. The latter would surely have been of considerable interest, coming from a man who could count the likes of Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse and Kevin O’Higgins among his acquaintances.
Not that MacNeill was amendable to such advice and, when he died in 1945, his family and friends agreed to remove the annotations Mallon had made to the text. The unvarnished original is what readers have here, which at least ensures the book’s authenticity, albeit with flaws that even historian Brian Hughes is honest about in his introduction:
Many of its themes and topics are underdeveloped, it is sometimes scattered in its chronology, there is no real sense of a chapter structure, and it is often repetitive, with MacNeill repeating several anecdotes on more than one occasion.
And yet, “in spite of its somewhat fragmentary nature,” Hughes argues, “the memoir that follows is a valuable historical document.”
There is some truth to that. MacNeill’s account of the increasingly frayed relationships between the Irish Volunteers and the politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party are of considerable interest – providing as it does an insider’s account – as are his slow realisation of the extent to which the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were blindsiding him in order to facilitate the Easter Rising.
‘Slow’ is the operative word here. He did not even know the IRB Military Council had existed until Tom Clarke’s widow dropped it into a conversation a year after the Rising. History has generally remembered MacNeill as a well-meaning soul but one who was easily misled by the machinations of the IRB.
It’s a write-off that MacNeill struggled to counter in his own memoir. In places, he seems to unintentional agree with the verdict that he was out of his depth. During his review of the Limerick Volunteers in his role as Chief of Staff, he was surprised to learn that the commanding officer had been appointed to some sort of secret command, with instructions to ‘hold the line of the Shannon’ should certain, unstated things come to pass. Despite his consternation, MacNeill did nothing except tell the officer to carry on as usual.
MacNeill was more decisive when James Connolly appeared likely to take unilateral action with his Irish Citizen Army in late 1915. Showing one of his few sparks of leadership, MacNeill warned Connolly against his plan to seize a number of large buildings in Dublin and wait for the masses to follow his lead. “You simply cannot see over the top of the houses,” MacNeill told him.
While he was able to talk Connolly down, MacNeill’s suspicion that plans were being hatched behind his back continued. Thomas MacDonagh assured him this was not the case until, on the Saturday before the Rising, MacDonagh admitted that he had to obey what he called the ‘council’ rather than his Chief of Staff.
MacNeill was to blame Joseph Plunkett for much of these machinations, alleging that he “revelled in plotting and planning and nothing in the arrangements was too minute for him.” Plunkett would attempt to have MacNeill sign a certain proclamation, sometime on the Good Friday or Saturday. He declined until he had the chance to read it. Even if he had received a copy (he never did), he “would certainly have refused to sign a proclamation containing a delusive statement about an alliance with Germany and Austria,” a reference to the ‘gallant allies in Europe’ that Pearse was to enthuse over in his address outside the General Post Office.
When the Rising finally broke out, MacNeill – fearing British retribution – first tried asking for shelter in a “certain religious house,” only to be informed that he would not be welcome. The Augustinians at Orlagh, below Killakee Mountain, were more hospitable, and from there he had a view of the whole of Dublin, now a war zone.
For reasons attributed to the strain of feeling like a refugee, MacNeill took his leave of the Augustinians and went to his brother’s house at Rathfarnham, closer to the fighting, from where he could again watch history unfold: “From the roof of this house also, a large part of the city was visible and almost every sound, rifle fire, as well as artillery could be plainly heard.”
Aaaaaaand…that’s as good as it gets. But it was nice while it lasted.
“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.
Elijah approached the people and said, “How long will you not decide between two choices? If the Lord is the true God, follow him, but if Baal is the true God, follow him!” (1 Kings 18:21)
James J. O’Kelly
‘The Election of the Snows,’ they were to call it in North Roscommon and with good reason. A heavy blizzard had broken out on the Thursday night of the 25th January 1917, accompanied by a strong wind that resulted in snowdrifts of up to ten to twelve feet in places. The snowfall continued all through Friday and showed no signs of abating by Saturday. Nowhere was the snow any less than two feet in depth except for the few spots that the wind had managed to blow clear.
As abominable as it was, the weather was not enough to deter the armies of canvassers who had descended on Roscommon. Three rival candidates standing in a by-election for a prize too good, with stakes too high for any hesitancy or half-measures.
The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had sent sixteen of its Members of Parliament (MPs) and forty organisers – as estimated by a local newspaper – to assist its candidate, Thomas J. Devine. That some of these Party partisans hailed from the opposite ends of the country such as Dublin, Belfast and Cork showed the extent of the support that the heirs of Charles Stewart Parnell could still muster.
For almost thirty years, the late James J. O’Kelly had had his constituency in North Roscommon since his initial election as its MP in 1880. The former Fenian-turned-politician had been thirty-five then, a tender age in Westminster terms, but one that belied his personal qualities. “His firm tread and erect carriage told at once that he was a trained soldier, and his flashing blue eyes, deeply-set below a broad, high forehead,” wrote a panegyrical obituary, “told friend and foe alike that here was a man who must be reckoned with.”
He had stood by Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority position which he had paid for when he lost his seat in 1892 to an anti-Parnellite rival. He regained it three years later and, from then on, he was returned unopposed to the North Roscommon constituency until his death.
Those had been the glory days of the IPP, when it had few rivals but itself, but times had changed, the country had moved on, and the party’s dominance was no longer assured. Usurpers and opportunists were sizing up their chances, and O’Kelly’s death on the 22nd December 1916 was just the opening they needed.
Like the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in O’Kelly’s career, as lengthy and impressive as it was, became him like the leaving of it, as the resulting by-election was to have monumental consequences for the rest of the country.
As the only one of the three candidates to be truly an Independent, Jasper Tully compensated for the lack of party machinery behind him with sheer chutzpah and friendly media coverage. While the IPP workers were working hard to cover every inch of the constituency, Tully announced himself already done and confident of success.
His self-assurance was shared by the Roscommon Herald at least. The newspaper followed his campaign extensively and generously, as well it might, considering how Tully was its editor and proprietor.
The third candidate was not faring too well. That is, if one were to take the Herald at face value. Count George Plunkett was cutting it fine with his arrival in North Roscommon from Dublin on the 1st February, just two days before polling. His first meeting:
…was very small, and the Count proved to be such a wretched speaker that the people who came to hear him walked off in disgust.
The Count proceeded to Boyle, where his efforts were only a little more successful. His main advocate, Father Michael O’Flanagan, was:
…vigorously groaned, and when he turned on some of the old women who were taunting him, was soon proved to be no march for them with the tongue, and he had to retire crest-fallen.
The truth was, the Herald said, that Count Plunkett was a nice old man but hardly suitable material to represent North Roscommon in Westminster. He had been a Tory all his life, to such an extent that his son, Joseph Mary Plunkett – one of those brave patriots executed ten months earlier – had been unable to live under the same roof as his father and moved out.
The Herald was to spare the Count no mercy in its denunciations, introducing him to its readership under a headline that managed to weld his name and his lack of Roscommon roots into a single jibe: A COUNT BUT NOT A COUNT-Y MAN.
The rest of the Herald’s article gave a brief, derisive summary of the subject’s life so far:
The Count is a venerable old man, nearly seventy years of age, with a long flowing white beard. His father was a builder in Rathmines, and he got his title from Pope Leo the Thirteenth. His son was one of the sixteen shot in the Rebellion.
The Count, who was a Government official, was ordered to reside in England by Sir John Maxwell, but the Count has repeatedly declared in the Press that he had nothing to do with the Rebellion.
It was typical of Tully, for whom the best defence was always attack. His world, in the words of one local historian, was a “welter of animosities, hatreds and personal obsessions.” But then, what else could be expected from a man who, upon the death of his wife, redirected her mail with “Not known at this address. Try Hell”?
His personal temperament notwithstanding, Tully had long been a fixture on the midlands political scene. He had begun as an ally of Parnell, for whom he had worked as an organiser in the Land League. The two men had even shared a prison sentence together in Kilmainham Gaol, which had not stopped Tully from siding with Parnell’s opponents in the 1890 ‘Divorce Crisis’, and it was on an anti-Parnellite platform that he was elected MP for Leitrim South from 1892 to 1906.
Never one to stay out of trouble, he was prosecuted in 1886 for printing an intimidatory article in his Herald. He walked when the jury disagreed on the verdict but, by the following year, he was again in court on more charges of intimidation, and yet again in 1900 when he was finally convicted, and received six months of hard labour – his second spell in jail – for publishing an article inciting people to threaten farmers.
Time and prison did nothing to mellow his temperament. He sabotaged his chances for re-election on an IPP basis in 1905, when he brought a court action to overturn the results of the county and district elections, which had not gone his way. As part of the suit, he accused the successful Party candidates of – among other things – bribery, voter fraud and conspiracy to murder (!).
That the court awarded him damages came at the expense of his bridges with his colleagues being well and truly burned. One of those he had accused was Thomas J. Devine, giving the 1917 North Roscommon by-election the feel of the latest round in a long-running feud.
Thomas J. Devine
Compared to Tully’s Trump-esque behaviour and the near absence of the Count, the IPP seemed a model of demure efficiency. The nomination procedure on the 23rd January saw the attendance of a sizeable crowd in Boyle, with the encouraging addition of a number of clergymen.
John J. Hayden, the MP for South Roscommon, announced to the delegates the “unanimous selection” in private of Devine as their chosen candidate. Devine had merited the selection on the basis of his impressive curriculum vitae, having been a county councillor, the Chairman of the Executive of the IPP and the County Vice-President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Attendees who had been hoping to have an actual say in the choosing process were to be disappointed. The Irish Party had never been a particularly open organisation and it was not about to change.
Hayden next had the task of outlining to the convention attendees the party agenda. With considerable understatement, he told them that “a great many things had occurred since the beginning of the war which must obtain their most careful consideration.”
The first point to consider was an agricultural one: the breaking up of hitherto uncultivated land, with a warning against landowners who tried to tempt tenants into tilling their soil without any intention of selling of them. Having spearheaded one of the great triumphs of Irish politics in the form of the Land War and the resultant improvements for tenant farmers, the Party was loathe to risk such hard-worn gains.
The second point, and the other legacy to safeguard, was “the great question of National Self-Government,” namely Home Rule.
After many years of toil in the debating-hall of Westminster, John Redmond and his cohorts had at last succeeded in passing the Bill for Home Rule into law. Many had been sneering throughout the long wait, doubting it would ever come about.
But these cynics and scoffers had been proven wrong. Home Rule was no longer a domestic concern but an international question, with the attention of not only Irish and British statesmen but those from around the world. There was to be an Imperial Conference next month in London, and here Ireland would be one of the issues on the table for discussion.
Should that question come up, how could Ireland best safeguard her interests? Was it by having one constituency represented one way and another in another way; was it by men responsible only to themselves, or was it by having a strong, disciplined, united party of proved and tried Nationalists representing each and every part of Ireland?
It was a simple, if transparent, tactic: an appeal to unity in the pursuit of a common goal. The question remained, however, as to whether it would be enough.
The Irish Nation League
The opposition, meanwhile, was far from idle themselves. Four days before the IPP Convention, Laurence Ginnell, the Independent MP for North Westmeath, and Father O’Flanagan, the curate for Rossna, had opened the Plunkett campaign with a meeting of their own in Castlerea on the 19th January. The two men quickly became the backbone of the Plunkett campaign, with Ginnell contributing his considerable experience in politics, much of which had been spent in defiance of the establishment, whether Britain’s or the Irish Party’s.
He had been a member of the latter until 1909, when he had resigned over his colleagues’ overly casual attitudes towards party funds. A demand at a closed-doors session to see a statement of finances resulted in him being locked out of the room; in return, he stood as an Independent in North Westmeath the following year and – with sweet vindication – defeated the IPP choice by a large margin.
The Party responded by passing a resolution “excluding all factionists,” although it is unlikely that the target of their ire cared much. Likewise, Ginnell’s win as a lone wolf did not seriously challenge the IPP’s hegemony over the country’s politics.
A rebel ever in search of a cause – one historian described him as an “unpopular and a lonely figure” at Westminster but one whose courage and sincerity was never in doubt– Ginnell found two in the wake of the Easter Rising: post hoc support for the rebellion, and a rekindling of his ire towards former colleagues. As a speaker at an anti-Partition rally in Belfast on the 18th July 1916, he accused the IPP of “trying to throw dust in the people’s eyes” in its alleged consent towards “the proposal for the destruction of Ireland.”
The danger of Partition was an obvious matter of concern in the Ulster counties, and in Derry the Anti-Partition League was formed in July, becoming the Irish Nation League a month later. Its stated intent was to be “thoroughly democratic” and, of particular importance, free from the influence of the IPP.
Originating as a Northern phenomenon, the League achieved some success in the rest of the country, holding its first Dublin meeting on the 10th September in Phoenix Park. A large crowd listened as resolution after resolution was adopted, calling for the immediate release of political prisoners, conscription to be resisted, and full and complete self-government for the country without division. All Irish Party MPs were to resign their seats and make way for fresh elections.
‘A Nation Once Again’ was sung at the end, and a stream of young men left the Park to march along the Quays, singing rebel songs and waving tricolours. Two branches of the League were swiftly formed in Dublin, one each for the North and South sides, followed by another in Limerick. Having found a receptive audience for its message, the League seemed poised to seriously challenge the IPP as the mouthpiece of the country.
As one of its founding members, Ginnell provided his services to the League when he could, such as speaking at a Limerick rally at the beginning of October. His work as an MP was similarly eventful, being suspended several times from the House of Common, one of them being in July for refusing to withdraw his accusations towards the military authorities of a number of misdeeds during the Easter Rising, namely bombarding the Cumann-na-mBan headquarters and mistreating its nurses.
He later apologised and regained access to the Commons on the 17th October. His contrition did not last long, and the Irish Times noted later in the month that he was “beginning to reassert himself, and his questions are once again becoming as difficult, not to say offensive, as of old.”
As if all this was not enough, Ginnell was also busy visiting the barracks in England where the prisoners from the Easter Rising were kept. He brought the inmates cigarettes and papers, and left with their forbidden letters smuggled on his person.
What had him barred from any further visits was his telling the prisoners that they were martyrs for Ireland. Ginnell resorted to signing the prison visitors’ book with the Irish equivalent of his name, ‘Labras MacFingail.’ Convicted of obtaining admission under false pretences, Ginnell was given the choice of either a fine or three weeks’ imprisonment. Possibly inspired by the example of the prisoners, a defiant Ginnell opted for jail.
A day after his conviction was upheld on the 10th October, a meeting by the Irish Nation League in Dublin broke up amongst scenes of chaos, the ostensible point of contention being who should take the chair for the occasion. The one who eventually gained the chair took the opportunity to denounce the leaders of the League as undemocratic and acting against the interests of the country. The ill-fated meeting was adjourned for an indefinite period. The Freeman’s Journal reported this in gloating terms; unsurprisingly so, given that it was a mouthpiece for the IPP.
Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born barrister, authored The Rise of the Irish Nation League, to help explain the new organisation. The booklet ended with a call for “sincere patriots [to] join it in their thousands,” with a promise that “there is a place in its ranks for every good Irish man and every good Irish girl,” but said good Irishmen and girls suddenly did not seem so inclined to accept the invitation.
The Dublin branches struggled on as best they could, but the League ultimately gained little support in the city or elsewhere in the country outside of its Ulster origins. O’Shiel retrospectively attributed its difficulties to its attempts to “give constitutionalism a final chance” when constitutionalism had had its day: “We in the Nation League were speaking a political language that had become archaic in six months, and we were talking that archaic tongue in an atmosphere that was changing rapidly even while we spoke.”
Factional disputes and disagreements on the best course of action furthered sapped morale. After such a promising start, the League was about to grind to a halt. It is thus unsurprising that Ginnell and the rest of the League should turn their energies to a fresh battleground in North Roscommon.
Ginnell was initially unsure on which one candidate to support. He received a letter from Tully on the 12th January 1917, saying he had been pressed to stand in North Roscommon (that he had needed much pressing is unlikely), and with request for his help. As Tully had been one of his few supporters in his 1910 election to North Westmeath, this was not an appeal he could easily ignore.
The next day, Alice Ginnell travelled to Oxford, to where the Count had been deported after the Rising. She asked him if he too had been approached to stand in the North Roscommon by-election and, if so, had he agreed. The answer was ‘yes’ to both.
Still undecided, Ginnell left London for Ireland on the 17th. When he arrived in Boyle on the night train, two motorcars were waiting for him, one from Tully and the other from Father Michael O’Flanagan.
Ginnell chose to go in Tully’s but then had a “very unsatisfactory interview” with his old ally. In a petty display of power, Tully had Ginnell refused admittance to a hotel that the candidate owned, forcing the MP to stay the night in a private house. A second interview two days later went no better. In her reminisces, Alice Ginnell gives no reason for the suddenly strained relationship between the two men, saying only that her husband was extremely upset at being unable to repay his former friend for his past services.
Whatever the cause, Ginnell now committed himself to the Count. He would soon display his prowess as a campaigner, walking ten miles through the cutting weather from Boyle to Elphin to address a crowd there. In contrast, a group of young pro-Plunkettites left Roscommon town by motorcar in an attempt to clear a path with shovels, but were forced to turn back. Experience took no second place to youth, it seemed.
Father Michael O’Flanagan
Tully did not waste time mourning the loss of his friendship with Ginnell. When the Roscommon Herald announced Plunkett’s candidacy, it did so almost in passing:
The Count is standing for North Roscommon as the nominee of the recently formed place-hunting Irish Nation League, which is usually called the “League of the Seven Attorneys,” as it is run by seven Attorneys in the North of Ireland who were disappointed in getting places from the last Government.
(The use of the sobriquet ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ to mock the Irish Nation League – due to the abundance of attorneys and barristers like O’Shiel in its ranks – was not original to the Herald. O’Shiel attributed an otherwise obscure Donegal-based newspaper for the nickname, which was quickly taken up by others.)
Significantly, Sinn Féin was nowhere mentioned. At the time it was less of a coherent entity and more, as O’Shiel described, the “extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.” Instead, O’Shiel was in no doubt that the Plunkett campaign originated from Father O’Flanagan: “That remarkable, brilliant and most eloquent young man.”
O’Flanagan’s energy and indefatigability made him almost a one-man movement, inspiring the Irish Times – which was far from sympathetic to the Plunkett cause in general – to describe him in almost Biblical terms:
For twelve days and nights he was up and down the constituency, going like a whirlwind and talking in impassioned language to the people at every village and street corner and cross-roads where he could get people to listen to him.
Having delivered the burial service at the iconic public funeral for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, O’Flanagan was an experienced performer. He was shrewd enough to base his message in North Roscommon on the then overriding concern to all: the fear that conscription into the British Army for its war in Europe would be imposed on Ireland.
Conscription, so O’Flanagan said, would have been implemented already had it not been for the Rising. As one of the Count’s sons had been executed and another two imprisoned for their roles in that rebellion, ergo, a vote for the Count was a blow against conscription.
How one would lead to the other was not explained in any great detail. After all, conscription was still an issue and it was not as if Plunkett was proposing another uprising. But then, few political messages have suffered from oversimplification.
Whatever his deficiencies as an analyst, O’Flanagan more than made up for them with his gift for imagery. It was easier for the young men, so he told his rapt audiences, to carry their father to the polls to vote for Plunkett than it would be for them to serve as conscripts in France. The potential of youth to make a difference and the bridging of generations for a worthy cause were favoured themes of O’Flanagan’s, to which he would return.
The padre was also unafraid to get down into the mire with an opponent. He responded at one meeting to Tully’s printed mockeries with some fighting words of his own. Tully, he said, did not love his country. Tully had always been a trimmer and was not fit to clean the Count’s shoes (cheers). As for the Count, he did not get his title from England but from the Pope (more cheers). O’Flanagan appealed to every man, woman and child in the parish to assist Count Plunkett, a cultured Irish Catholic, and thus honour the memory of the dead who died for Ireland (cheers again) – a clear reference to those of Easter Week. The Plunkett campaign was finding that a connection to the Rising was a political boon that its rivals could not hope to duplicate.
The Freeman’s Journal
The nominations for the three candidates in Boyle on the 26th January made the three-way nature of the contest official. The Freeman’s Journal stressed the unanimous selection of Devine at the IPP convention and praised him as a “man of proved record in the National fight,” by which he meant the Home Rule movement.
For Tully, the paper had nothing but scorn, pointing out that he could have put himself forward at the same convention like the others but he did not: “Probably because he knew he would not be selected.” His running as an Independent, therefore, could “only be regarded as a wanton attempt to divide the constitutional forces in the consistency.”
For Plunkett, the Freeman showed a certain grudging respect, acknowledging that his candidacy was a “direct challenge to the policy of the Irish Party, and is, therefore, an issue clear and well-defined.” Unlike Tully’s Roscommon Herald, the Freeman refrained from a direct attack on the Count, at least at first.
Instead, it waxed lyrically about the record of the late James J. O’Kelly: “one of the old Fenian Guard who had kept fully the spirit of Ireland alive in the darkest and most evil days” until his conversion to “the great policy of constitutionalism which Parnell had undertaken.”
O’Kelly had proceeded to traverse the length and width of Roscommon. He had done so before as a revolutionary, drawing converts to the Fenian cause, but upon his metanoia, he made instead followers to the path of parliamentarism. This was a course which would, no doubt, settle for good the pressing question of Irish self-rule. The candidacy of Count Plunkett was a divergence from this course, one that could only set back the gains made already.
The Freeman made a plea for consistency: “The men who were represented so faithfully and so long by James O’Kelly will not consent to be represented by anyone except a man who will honestly and loyally follow in his footsteps” – a man like Devine, in other words.
In contrast to such a heritage, Plunkett did not seem to represent much. Until his deportation to England for the Rising – something the newspaper informed its readers he seemed to have had no sympathy for – he had been a Government official, making him an unlikely Sinn Feiner. Attempting to strike a tone of judicious concern, the Freeman concluded:
It is certainly much to be hoped that the doubt which now exists will be cleared up without delay, for, in the present circumstances, the Count would appear to stand for nothing and nobody but himself.
So what *did* Plunkett stand for? By himself, very little, as readily admitted by many of his supporters in the years afterwards, with one remarking that “we youngsters…did not care what the Count did so long as he was elected.” Another thought at the time that the Count did not need a political platform of his own, as simply being the father of an Easter Rising martyr would be sufficient.
And there lay the secret of Plunkett’s appeal. In dismissing him as an empty vessel, the Freeman and other critics were entirely missing the point. The candidate was not intended to be himself but as a cup for others to pour into.
The IPP’s adherents would attempt further to hammer away at Count Plunkett’s radical credentials. The Freeman’s Journal scorned Tully’s campaign tactics as abusive and crude – “in thoroughly characteristic fashion” for him – but the IPP, when push came to shove, proved to be not so above it all, after all.
John Hayden, the South Roscommon MP, told a rally in Boyle that he had in his pocket a letter:
…written by Count Plunkett saying he was in total ignorance of what was taking place [during the Rising], and that he spent Easter Week taking charge and looking after the property of the Government in the Dublin Museum of which he had charge. He apologies for the conduct of his sons in that affair, because, he says, they were mere boys.
Plunkett’s policy was not in keeping with the rebels of Easter Week and thus not in line with that of Sinn Féin. What then was his policy? As for Tully, he stood only for himself, and without a party or wider movement behind him, what could he hope to achieve alone?
Hayden closed his speech with an exhortation to “stand by the policy of Parnell and James O’Kelly, to stand by a united and disciplined Irish Party…and thus show that no policy of any sort or kind, whether it be Sinn Fein, Irish Nation League or Tullyism will be tolerated in opposition to a pledge-bound Irish Party.” Such language spoke much about the mindset of the IPP and how it still saw itself as the only viable option for the nationalist vote.
The Roscommon Messenger sided with Devine. While it had not previously covered the election in any great detail, its edition for the 3rd February – timed for the day of the vote – made its allegiance explicit with a list of reasons to support the candidate:
He was the unanimous choice of the IPP Convention, or the “Convention of the people,” as the newspaper phrased it.
He supported the constitutional movement of Parnell, Michael Davitt and James O’Kelly, “which had proven effective for the winning of every reform demanded by the Irish Party.”
Repeating much of what the IPP machine had already said, the Messenger dismissed Tully as representing no party and no politics. Plunkett had been drawing “a Government salary for looking after old fossils, bones and stuffed birds in the Dublin Museum.” He would find North Roscommon, the paper warned, a tougher prospect to deal with than his dead birds and antiquarian knick-knacks.
Another local newspaper, the Roscommon Journal, was not so obliging, and took a gloating pleasure in recording the mishaps of F.E. Meehan. The MP for North Leitrim was speaking on behalf of Devine in Loughglynn when he was challenged to answer one question.
When Meehan consented to do so, he was asked: “How many recruitment speeches did you make on recruiting platforms?”
“Oh, that has nothing to do with the election,” Meehan replied.
“Oh, yes, it has,” said his challenger from the crowd. With the looming threat of conscription, anything to do with the British Army was now treated as the mark of Cain. When Meehan declined to answer any further, his audience, according to the Journal with a frisson of schadenfreude, “melted away from him and he was left a bird alone in the snow.”
The Roscommon Journal had already decided to align itself with Tully. It joined the Herald in its generous coverage of the man, including the number of notable endorsements he had earned, such as Father Monaghan. The priest appealed to the voters of Fairymount district to support the Independent candidate, citing his previous record of fighting against high taxation while on Roscommon County Council.
The Boyle Town Commissioners also came out in support, describing Tully, who happened to be their chairman, as a “devoted and worthy man…one whose effort has been to improve the condition of the country, and of the people amongst whom he lives.” Tully may not have had a party or policy to call his own but he did at least know how to use his local contacts.
He decided to make up for lost canvassing time by addressing two large meetings, one after another, in Boyle on the 27th January. The first was an open-air event in the town centre, notable mainly for the arrival of a small band of disrupters from Sligo who were quickly driven away. Tully and his listeners then withdrew inside a hall for his second hearing.
Never short of bravado, he told his listeners that his canvassing was already done (not that he had been doing too much of it to begin with). Everybody in the constituency knew him and everything that could be said for or against him. The IPP had sent sixteen MPs and forty organisers against him, but where were they now? All snowed under, unable to do anything but warm their toes at hotel fires. Just as Napoleon could fight everything but the snow, so was the sixteen horse power MP machine of John Redmond helpless against the elements.
An unwise heckler felt the edge of Tully’s tongue: “I hope, Mr Rafferty, you will try to restrain yourself. You are now trying to pose as a Sinn Feiner, while your brother is out in the trenches fighting for England.”
To general laughter, he proceeded to taunt the “little sham of Sinn Feiners” in the Plunkett camp, painting a lurid picture of them kissing and hugging the Sherwood Foresters who had pacified the country after the Rising. “These twopenny, halfpenny, tin-whistlers were great fighters now with their mouths,” he sneered.
Contrary to what they may have heard, Tully told his audience, the Count had not been put forward by Sinn Féin. After all, Sinn Féin did not believe in Parliamentary elections, and if a real Sinn Féiner was to be elected, he would not sit, so why would one be running in the first place? That left just him, a local boy, the only one who could hope to do a particle of good for North Roscommon.
Seconding Tully on the platform was M.J. Judge. As a member of the Irish Volunteers (one of the very few to support a candidate other than Plunkett), that alone gave him some weight. Judge quickly picked up Tully’s thread: it was not Sinn Féin but the ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ who were behind the Plunkett campaign. Each of these said attorneys was only interested in obtaining an easy job in the government, and would use Roscommon as a bargaining chip towards this.
Tully announced himself happy to step down in favour of a “real Sinn Feiner” but not for a man who, before becoming a government servant, was:
…always known in Dublin as an amiable old Whig. He is now a very feeble old man, and a delicate man. It is really the Dublin people who should take him up for Parliament, if he is anxious for a seat, but I do not believe he knows anything about North Roscommon except seeing it on the map.
Tully cited Eoin MacNeill as an example of a ‘real Sinn Feiner” for whom he would be willing to move aside. As the imprisoned Chief of Staff to the Irish Volunteers was unlikely to be in Roscommon anytime soon, Tully could happily make such empty promises.
It was notable that Tully made the point of criticising those purporting to be of Sinn Féin rather than the party itself, an indication in itself of the direction in the public mood. The first time the name of Sinn Féin was raised in connection with the election was the report by the Roscommon Herald in the first week of January 1917 about rumours in local Sinn Féin circles of running someone for the election.
While this possible candidate remained anonymous, the paper did drop hints as to his identity:
The gentleman’s name is one of the most important – if not the most important of the leaders of the Irish Volunteer movement. He is now undergoing penal servitude in England as a result of trial and sentence by courtmartial in Dublin.
Although this gentleman’s name would never be confirmed, the clues would point towards it being Eoin MacNeill. There was also a mention of efforts to entice Dr Michael Davitt, son and namesake of the famed Land League founder, to stand but other than his refusal upon his mother’s objections, no further details were given.
The following week’s edition of the Herald told of how a “Mr O’Doherty of Dublin” had been in Boyle and other parts of North Roscommon, bearing a petition to invite Count Plunkett to stand in the constituency for Sinn Féin.
Despite the novelty of Sinn Féin running for a parliament whose authority it repudiated, interest in the petition was mostly limited to its possible short-term consequences. There was fear that the petition would bring down the wrath of the authorities in the form of wholesale arrests. Sympathisers of Sinn Féin argued instead that it would assist in freeing the prisoners from the Rising.
The “Mr. O’Doherty of Dublin” was Seamus O’Doherty, actually from Derry. He would become the director of elections for Count Plunkett, at least in name, for Father O’Flanagan seems to have been that in effect. Indeed, the priest and O’Doherty wrote the Count’s election address in the latter’s house, according to his wife, Kitty.
Seamus had first obtained from the Count assurance that he stood on the platform of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Given that the Count had lost a son on account of the Rising, with two others imprisoned over it, he was hardly going to refute their efforts.
It is unknown if O’Doherty took the time to inform Plunkett of his role as acting head of the reorganised Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Count himself having been sworn into the IRB a few weeks before the Rising. Despite O’Doherty’s status, the rest of the Council did not approve of his forays into electoral politics and refused the Plunkett campaign access to their funds. Regardless of this setback, O’Doherty was still able to contact IRB cells in Roscommon and persuade them to assist him in the election.
The journalist J.J. O’Kelly (also known by his penname ‘Sceilg’) gave his own account of the baby steps of the Plunkett-Sinn Féin campaign. He had spoken at a Sinn Féin conference in North Roscommon, organised by – who else? – Father O’Flanagan. The name of Dr Michael Davitt had been put forward and approved by the majority of those present. O’Kelly had returned to his office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, where he was followed by O’Flanagan. Davitt had declined the offer, so O’Flanagan proposed another candidate.
As editor of the Catholic Bulletin, an officer in the Gaelic League and a participant in the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Fund, O’Kelly was a man of some influence. But it was the priest – according to O’Kelly – who decided on Plunkett as their replacement.
O’Kelly knew the Count already, both having served on the committee for the Society of the Preservation of the Irish Language, and had visited his Dublin house many times in the past.O’Kelly wrote that same evening to his old friend in Oxford with the offer to stand (a letter from O’Kelly discussing the matter would date this to early January).
This would clash somewhat with Kitty O’Doherty’s version, in which it was her husband who did the bulk of the preliminary work. Whoever was responsible, Sinn Féin now had their man.
That Sinn Féin would become synonymous with the Plunkett campaign was surprising to many. There was, after all, not much to Sinn Féin at the time. As a party, it was “practically non-existent,” in the opinion of one Plunkettite canvasser, to the point of it not being mentioned in any of the campaign speeches.
O’Shiel, took a similarly dim view of Sinn Féin, describing it as being defined less by what it was and more by what it was not: “the then extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.”
Nonetheless, according to O’Doherty, his petition was able to attract the signatures of “hundreds of prominent people.” This may be something of an exaggeration, given how newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal and the Roscommon Herald – both usually so attuned to potential threats to their respective candidates – failed to mention the petition in anything more than passing terms.
Regardless, the petition was enough to kick-start the Plunkettite drive. It made no mention of the Rising – somewhat surprisingly, given its ex post facto popularity – or any specific Sinn Féin policies, preferring instead to keep things simple:
We declare our adhesion to the doctrine of Ireland a Nation which has been handed down to us by our fathers. We believe that the Irish Nation has as much right to freedom as any other nation. The fact that the Great Powers at present warring on the continent of Europe have again and again appealed to this principle of Nationality is clear proof of its potential moral power.
We believe that at the present moment Ireland has a magnificent chance of reaching the goal of freedom by merely insisting on her National claims and making them known throughout the world. In this way we can secure a hearing before the Nations when they assemble at the end of the war to re-build civilisation upon its new basis.
It was, in O’Shiel’s unromantic opinion, an “innocuous enough if pathetically hopeful statement, and, as a declaration of policy, extremely vague and shadowy.”
An issue that the petition neglected to touch upon was that of abstentionism. It was a keystone to Sinn Féin’s policy but not one that the rest of the Count’s supporters – the majority of them, in O’Shiel’s estimation – were willing to accept, at least not yet. Plunkett himself had said nothing on the issue, but then, he had said nothing about anything beyond agreeing to stand. Not that anyone seemed overly concerned with clarifying the matter with him. It was a question best left unasked in the meantime for the sake of everyone getting along.
O’Shiel travelled to Roscommon on the 31st January, more on behalf of the Irish Nation League than Sinn Féin. He reached Boyle after an extremely cold and uncomfortable journey, and stayed in the only hotel that was open to a Plunkettite (lodgings, as well as newspapers, could be used as weapons of politics). The next day, he travelled by motorcar to Carrick-on-Shannon, where the Count was due to come by train from Dublin.
This journey was as arduous as the one before, the driver having to occasionally dig a way through the snowdrifts on the road with a shovel. Despite the conditions, O’Shiel was impressed to see the number of people also making their way to the station. Some of these fellow travellers were wearing the newly fashionable colours of green, white and orange in buttonholes, or carrying flags of the same tricolour.
O’Shiel arrived to join the large and enthusiastic crowd that greeted Count Plunkett as he stepped off the train, accompanied by one of his daughters, Seamus O’Doherty and two priests. The crowd was largely a youthful one, which surprised O’Shiel, accustomed as he was to the predominance of the middle-aged and elderly in political meetings. Young women as well as lads were in attendance, an oddity for the times, and indicative of the new feeling that was sweeping the country.
Many of these young attendees were more than just passive observers. Groups of them paraded the streets on a nightly basis, singing such rousing doggerel such as:
Even the disagreeable weather could be utilised as another campaign tool, with the omnipresent snowfall providing a canvass for campaign slogans to be traced then filled in with ash. This created such a stark impression that passers-by could not help but read such exhortations like:
For many patriotically-minded youths, the election was a welcome relief from the listlessness around them. Roscommon had been entirely unprepared for the Rising, and when nothing of note had happened during Easter Week, the county seemed doomed to remain a revolutionary backwater.
Twenty-two year old Patrick Mullooly was sitting by the fire with some friends when someone came in to tell them that Father O’Flanagan was in the local hall at Kiltrustan. They went there to find a guest speaker regaling the audience with tales of the fighting during Easter Week.
When the newcomer was done, O’Flanagan leapt on stage to point at the Banner of St Patrick hanging on the wall. The priest pointed at the rallying cry on the foot of the flag – “Freedom comes from God’s right hand and needs a godly train and righteous men must make our land a Nation Once Again” – and said in a near-shout: “If you do not believe in those words, tear down that banner of St Patrick and trample on it!”
Nothing could have been better calculated to bring about the desired response. As Mullooly remembered it:
This evoked tremendous enthusiasm, everyone springing to their feet and cheering loudly and as the young men went home over the hills that night, you could hear their defiant cheers echoing from hill to hill.
What made such efforts so notable – besides anyone choosing to stay outdoors after dark in such temperatures at all – was that most of these young men would not be able to contribute a vote and women of any age not all. Universal suffrage would not come into effect in Ireland until the following year in the 1918 general election.
Yet still they turned out to help at almost every opportunity. Father O’Flanagan and O’Shiel in particular had reason to be grateful when their motorcar was stuck in a windscreen-high snowdrift and soon dug out by a group of young men at hand from the local Irish Volunteers.
The Irish Volunteers
The role played by the Volunteers was another innovation, though there had been doubt that they would be involved at all. The trade unionist William O’Brien was discussing the state of the country with Arthur Griffith when the subject of the ongoing by-election came up. O’Brien remembered how a vacancy had occurred in the West Cork constituency, near the end of the previous year. The Volunteers there had opposed the running of a Republican candidate, resulting in a win by the IPP. In light of that example, O’Brien told Griffith that he doubted that the Volunteers would be any more accommodating in North Roscommon.
He would be proved wrong. Young men from the Irish Volunteers became a familiar sight during the election. They canvassed voters, collected funds and stood on guard at meetings, not to mention the simple but essential task of shovelling snow off the roads, lest potential voters be blocked from their civic right.
It was not all for the sake of democracy. Electioneering duties also provided a convenient cover for organising the Volunteers in areas that had up to then been neglected. One Volunteer from Longford would remember such work as very much an ad hoc, albeit productive, one, with him travelling through North Roscommon with others in motorcars, arranging meetings and setting up impromptu units whenever they had the chance.
Another worker, Seán Leavy, only joined the Volunteers when he began assisting in the Plunkett campaign. He was inducted in with a minimal of fuss, with no oaths taken or ceremony stood on, just a membership card provided and the duty of organising a company in Leavy’s home parish of Scramogue, Roscommon.
Leavy not only succeeded in Scramogue but helped set up similar companies in Strokestown, Cloonfree, Carnistra, Curraghroe, Tarmonbarry, Kilbrustan and Northyard, as well as smaller units in Slatta, Kilglass and Rooskey. The companies were initially small but they would provide bases from which to work on in the near future.
There is no indication that there was any central leadership in the Volunteers directing operations. Members joined in, as individuals or in groups, as the mood took them, and the mood was a heady one indeed.
The experiences of Michael Staines were not untypical. Freshly released from Frognoch Camp for his part in the Rising, Staines obtained a position in the National Aid Association. As part of this, he toured the country to investigate claims for assistance from the dependants of those killed on the Easter Week, while taking the opportunity to help reorganise Volunteer companies as he found them.
On the suggestion of his friend, Seamus O’Doherty (he of the petition), he dropped by Roscommon to assist in the Plunkett campaign, one of his roles being to meet Michael Judge. Judge was one of the few Volunteers not to side with the Plunkett, instead sharing a platform with his chosen candidate, Jaspar Tully. Staines was tasked with persuading Judge to withdraw from helping Tully any further but such efforts floundered when the other man failed to arrive for their agreed appointment.
He had more success convincing some others, upon a brief return to Dublin, to come and assist in Roscommon. Staines was to be one of the two pro-Plunkett workers in the village of Frenchpark on polling day, the other being a certain Michael Collins. It was the first time the two of them met, making the election, amongst other things, a valuable time to make acquaintances and establish contacts.
Then fire from the Lord came down and burned the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the ground around the altar. It also dried up the water in the ditch. When all the people saw this, they fell down to the ground, crying. (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The tallying of the votes began at 10 am on the Saturday of the 3rd February, to be finished by noon and announced to a waiting crowd. Attendance was a heroic feat in itself. Fences along the public roads and through fields were smothered under blankets of snow, and any landmarks that could have provided direction had been covered from sight. On a number of occasions, intrepid travellers who had attempted to bypass the blocked roads by striking out over the fields were almost swallowed up by snow-obscured drains.
Despite such inclement conditions, supporters of both Devine and Plunkett announced themselves confident of success. Tully was more restrained for once, merely expressing the opinion that he had done “very well.” The Freeman’s Journal had already identified the contest as between Devine and the Count, relegating Tully to the status of an irrelevance. On both accounts, the IPP organ would prove prescient.
When it came to deciding the contest, it turned out that the results, as they were read out that Monday, were not even close:
Count George Plunkett – 3,022
Thomas J. Devine – 1,708
Jaspar Tully – 687
It was not so much a win and a loss as a triumph by one and crushing defeats for the others. None could have been more surprised than the winner. For all the fighting talk, no one in the Plunkett camp – other than the irrepressible Father O’Flanagan – had really thought they had a chance of actually winning.
The victor began by proposing a vote of thanks to the election officials for carrying out their duties in a most admirable manner. He was equally gracious to his two opponents, towards which he held no ill will. The election had tested the integrity of Irish democracy. After all, a Dubliner had just been elected by Roscommon men – perfect evidence of the firmness, fairness and justice of the proceedings. As for North Roscommon, if it had been sleeping before, it was awake now at last.
With considerable emotion, the beaten Devine spoke next. He seconded the vote of thanks to the officials. The other candidates and he were on the best of terms, and it was his wish that no bitterness remained. While otherwise a fair loser, Devine did express his view that his side had been handicapped but declined to elaborate.
In keeping with his past conduct, Tully gave the most verbose speech out of the three. Despite finding himself at the bottom of the poll, he professed to be delighted at the result as it meant the defeat of the Party machine, his votes totalling with the Count’s as the voice of North Roscommon defying the IPP.
It is doubtful that Plunkett really needed Tully’s share of the votes in order to send such a message. It might also be marvelled at the ease in which Tully switched from Plunkett as the target of his insults to the stricken IPP, mocking John Redmond, as “weak” and “wretched.”
The Roscommon Herald followed the direction of its owner. Two cartoons printed side by side caricatured the IPP’s mishaps, the first showing the IPP in the form of a crocodile arriving at Roscommon with a Union Jack waving in its tail, the other with the Party as a whimpering dog being given the boot.
The Post-Mortem by the Irish Times
The Irish Times identified the victor’s success as being due to a combination of conscription fears, which Father O’Flanagan had relentlessly played on, and the appeal to people’s sentiments concerning the Rising, which Plunkett undoubtedly had a claim to by his family’s involvement alone.
In contrast, the once-mighty, now flaccid election machine of the IPP could barely compete, particularly when compared to the impassioned speeches and tireless work done by Father O’Flanagan. But he was not the only man of the cloth swayed to new ways, with the Irish Times noting the “curious change in the attitude of the younger clergy.”
While the IPP convention where Devine was nominated had been attended by a large number of priests, these tended to be mature in years. Their younger colleagues, on the other hand, were notable by their absence. Father O’Flanagan’s entry into the Plunkett campaign – at least openly so, for it is clear that the curate was there from the start – was followed by several other clerics of similar age. From there, said the Irish Times with the benefit of hindsight, “it merely became a question of Count Plunkett’s majority.”
In the event of a general election, the Irish Times predicted that the IPP would be “swept out of three-fourths of their seats in rural Ireland.” The newspaper could scarcely hide its horror at such a possibility but felt compelled to state it all the same.
The Post-Mortem by Father O’Flanagan
While at polar opposite ends politically, Father O’Flanagan’s pen-portrait of the election was broadly in agreement with the Irish Times’. Writing a month afterwards in an article for the Catholic Bulletin (no doubt with the encouragement of its editor, J.J. O’Kelly), O’Flanagan told of meeting a six year-old boy as the former was walking down the empty streets of Strokestown one morning. As the priest passed by, the boy looked up from where he was playing in the snow and called out: “Up Plunkett!”
When O’Flanagan asked what the other was doing, the lad replied: “Making graves.”
Pointing to the two little mounds he had made in the snow, he explained: “That’s Tully and that’s Devine.”
When O’Flanagan pointed out that both of those two names were still alive, the boy clarified: “No, but we’re pretending they’re dead,” before turning to resume in his play.
Another anecdote concerned the elderly. One octogenarian refused to avail of the motorcar provided by the Plunkettites to take him to the polling booth. Instead, he waited for a vehicle from the Devine camp as he felt entitled to a trip at the IPP’s expense. As he left the booth, having completed his democratic duty, the old timer finally gave vent with a cheer for Plunkett (and was left to walk back home).
To O’Flanagan, the secret behind the North Roscommon win was a simple but profound one: “The enthusiasm of the young was wonderful, but the enthusiasm of the old was more wonderful still.”
Count George Plunkett
Perhaps the final word should go the Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Trained to follow the happenings throughout the country, the policeman eschewed the lengthy analysis of the Irish Times and the folksy myth-making of Father O’Flanagan. Instead, he kept his report to Dublin Castle short and crisp:
It is reported that Count Plunkett’s supporters appeared to work much harder than those of the other candidates, but one of the principal features of the election is that many persons, including a number of priests, who had not hitherto shown Sinn Fein sympathies, identified themselves on this occasion with the Sinn Feiners.
At the end of the day, the diverse collection of renegades, radicals and revolutionaries who rallied behind the Plunkett banner had wanted to win more than their opponents. In addition, they had been able to convert the ordinary mass of voters to their brand of nationalism, one that seemed fresher and more appetising than the stale, Home Rule-flavoured kind peddled by the Irish Party for so – for too? – long.
There could only have been one result. But, as wonderful as it might have been, the question was now what the victor would do with it. As for the groups who had trudged through the snow on his behalf – Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish Volunteers, even the IRB – the Count had given no indication as to where he stood with any of them.
Did he share their beliefs or follow their ideals? Did he agree with one in particular over the others? Was this win to be a once-off, a protest vote and nothing more? The first of more to come? Did the new MP have a plan or was he just taking things as they came?
All that was known for sure was that Count George Plunkett had lost a son in the Rising and beaten the Irish Party. For now, in the giddy aftermath of the Election of the Snows, that was enough.
The Robert Emmet Commemoration Concert was announced for the 4th March 1919, to be held in the Mansion House, Dublin. Posters advertised the event with the promise of a special – but unnamed – star attraction:
AN ADDRESS WILL BE GIVEN BY
A PROMINENT REPUBLICAN LEADER.
The concert organisers played their cards close to their chests, letting only a select few know the identity of the mystery guest. After the first part of the performance, it was announced by Diarmuid O’Hegarty that the promised oration was about to commence in the Round Room, to be presided over by Seán Ó Muirthile.
That both O’Hegarty and Ó Muirthile were high-ranking members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret society dedicated to freedom for Ireland, was no coincidence. This was to be more than a celebration of a long-dead patriot but a defiant clenching of the fist by living ones.
Even if unaware of all this, the guests could not have failed to note the presence of the Irish Volunteers, acting as stewards for the event. Some of them had been ordered to carry revolvers, although presumably not openly, this being an event to enjoy, after all.
As the advertised ‘prominent Republican leader’ prepared to make his entrance, Volunteers took up duty by the doors. One of them, Michael Lynch, remembered the anticipation:
One could feel the air of expectancy in the vast audience. From the supper-room, at the rere [sic] of the round room, came the sound of a pipers’ band tuning up. After a few minutes, the doors of the supper-room were thrown open and the pipers’ band came in, making a most infernal noise.
In the middle of the band, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, was Seán McGarry. As soon as he was recognised, the crowd broke out into a rapturous outburst of cheers, clapping and whistling loud enough to drown out the ‘infernal noise’ of the band. For who could fail to appreciate the pluck and daring of the man who had, along with others, broken out of an English jail a mere month and a day ago?
Ability, Tact and Discretion
McGarry walked on stage “rather shyly,” according to Lynch, understandably so, given the attention being heaped on him. Sharing the platform was Ó Muirthile and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, bedecked in his chain of office. There the three of them stood for many minutes until the cheering had died down enough for Ó Muirthile to begin.
He introduced McGarry – rather unnecessarily by this point – and said that if the true story of his escape was told, it would shatter all the ones they had been reading in the newspapers.
“At any rate,” Ó Muirthile continued, “he is here, and he has not been brought here by any of the methods that have been described in the Press for the past few days. He is here, owing in the ability, tact, and discretion of the men who are leading the Irish Republican Army.”
Then it was the turn of the Lord Mayor. He stood before them, he said, in the full adornment of his office to honour this latest fugitive from British injustice. He was there because a solemn and imperative duty demanded him to be there, first to tender a hearty welcome to his colleague, Councillor Seán McGarry, to the Mansion House.
And he was there to show his utter contempt, a contempt which was shared in every liberty-loving man and woman the whole world over, for a Government which detained in English jails so many of his fellow countrymen without any trial, without any charge, at the expense of the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and fair play.
(O’Neill was far less amenable when he wrote about the event several years later. He had worn his chain of office in honour of Robert Emmet, not McGarry whose appearance had been sprung on him at the last second. A consummate professional, O’Neill had nonetheless carried on with the show.)
Now it was finally time for McGarry to deliver his much hyped oration. What it was, Lynch could not recall, not that it mattered much. It was enough for McGarry to have appeared in public and give lie to the claims of the British Government that not one of its former prisoners had made it back to Ireland.
Whatever McGarry said, it was received with “great enthusiasm,” according to the Irish Times. The Irish Independent said even less, reporting in detail on Ó Muirthile’s and O’Neill’s words but nothing about McGarry speaking at all. For all the stir he caused, McGarry emerged from his own performance as little more than a prop for a piece of theatre.
But then, perhaps as Lynch suggested, it did not matter all that much in the end.
The Volunteers on the doors were ordered to bar everyone from leaving or using the phones while the speeches were going on. Trust was evidently a limited commodity. The Lord Mayor was among those blocked but made light of the inconvenience, quipping that he could not move in his own house.
As soon as McGarry was done, he was whisked out of the building by an escort of Volunteers and taken to Molesworth Street where a car was waiting, not to mention a large force of policemen and detectives, no doubt alerted by the gathering nearby. Nonetheless, perhaps deterred by the bodyguards, the police did not interfere as McGarry was taken to the car and driven away. The Volunteers returned to the concert which, by all accounts, continued to be a great success.
The Men Behind the Man
Seán McGarry was no newcomer to Irish Republicanism. Born in 1886, in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, the son of a letter carrier, he worked as an electrician while a key operative in the planning of the Howth gunrunning and then later the Easter Rising.
Unfortunately, he wrote no memoir and gave little about himself in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement (leaving it to others to tease out some details on his activities), preferring instead to focus on his mentor within the IRB, Tom Clarke.
McGarry first met the veteran Fenian in 1907 shortly after the latter’s return to Ireland. He was to provide no details on the circumstances – as if the years spent in the shadows and silences of a secret society had sapped his ability to be too forthcoming – only that he had been expecting a venerable elder, aged by many years in prison but finding instead one with the demeanour and enthusiasm of someone much younger. McGarry quickly became one of Clarke’s staunchest followers, a “right-hand man” in the words of another IRB member.
Another IRB organiser to whom McGarry was close was Seán Mac Diarmada. They had known each other since 1906-7 when they had belonged to the Dungannon Club in Belfast, one of the few times McGarry ventured out of the Dublin orbit.
In general, McGarry served as a go-between and emissary. The future Chief Justice of Ireland, Tim Sullivan, received a visit from McGarry in 1915 while the former was working as a barrister. McGarry had been sent by Mac Diarmada on behalf of a Volunteer arrested for illegal possession of arms and explosives.
As instructed, McGarry offered Sullivan a hundred guineas on his brief. Sullivan stared hard at his visitor, saying: “In my opinion, you boys are Fenians.”
True to his membership of a secret society, McGarry said nothing. Correctly taking the silence as an assent, Sullivan then agreed to take on the case, waiving aside his usual fee (the defendant was later acquitted).
A Day Out in Howth
On the 25th July 1914, a message was sent to several IRB initiates (who doubled as Irish Volunteers) to meet McGarry that day at Nelson’s Pillar. None of the four men who came knew what was to be expected of them but waited all the same until McGarry arrived. When the others inquired further, he politely told them to mind their own business.
The group drove to Amiens Street Station where McGarry purchased five tickets for Howth. They arrived in the harbour at 4 pm, where McGarry told them to go to the end of the East Pier while he waited by the station. The four others did so, and McGarry later rejoined then at the Pier, accompanied by a middle-aged fisherman in a blue jersey and a peaked cap.
The hoary sea dog bluntly told them that their request to do a spot of fishing was impossible given the rough weather. After some arguing on the matter, McGarry walked away with the fisherman, still arguing, but it seems to have been resolved when McGarry returned to the others after a short while. If he could get a boat, he asked them, would they be willing to venture out on it – a reasonable question as it was raining hard with high winds and rough waters.
Undeterred, the men voiced their assent. McGarry finally told them what was going on – they were to go out and make contact with a boat laden with weapons. This came as no huge surprise as the men had been hearing rumours about the importation of guns for some months now.
‘A Beautiful Sight’
McGarry then left again after telling them to stay put until further instructions. Two hours later, the men were surprised to see Darrell Figgis, the writer (and, unknown to them, one of the chief organisers of the gunrunning), coming down the pier with the same fisherman as before, the pair of them walking up and down the boards in a fresh argument.
McGarry arrived back on the scene, accompanied by Clarke, in time to join in the argument with Figgis and the stubborn fisherman. Finally, McGarry told the waiting team to remain where they were on the pier while he attempted to make alternative arrangements for a boat, possibly from Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) on the other side of the bay. The fisherman was apparently not to be moved.
The four men remained by the sea, depressed at the seemingly wasted day. A messenger came on a bicycle at 9 pm, five hours after they had arrived, only to tell them to keep waiting. The last tram and train had left Howth for the night by the time a second cyclist arrived to inform them they could return to the city but to stick together. Soaked to the skin from the rain, the men trudged back inland.
McGarry drove with Figgis to Kingstown, hoping to catch the yacht, Asgard, loaded with the promised armaments from there. They sighted the vessel over the water but, lacking anyone like they had in Howth, the pair had no choice but to finally retire, weary and disheartened, to the Marine Hotel at 4 am for a few hours of sleep.
Returning to Howth on the first train that morning, McGarry and Figgis met a second team from Bray, which were posted at the base of the north pier. By 9:30 am the Asgard could be seen on the far side of Lambay Island but, as it approached the pier, there was no sign of any other Volunteers to assist. It was only when the yacht drew next to the pier-head that Figgis heard McGarry beside him say: “Here they are; look at them, aren’t they a beautiful sight.”
A column of Volunteers were marching towards them, including the four who had been with McGarry in Howth the day before. All were ready and eager to assist in the unloading of the arms in what would become known to history as the Howth gunrunning. It had been touch-and-go, but the efforts of McGarry, Clarke, Figgis and the Irish Volunteers had finally paid off.
McGarry was among those assembled in the library of the Gaelic League headquarters in Parnell Square in September 1914 when Clarke and MacDermott announced their intentions of starting an armed uprising at an opportune time. Also present were James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Seán T. O’Kelly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Mac Donagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, many of whom would help spearhead the Rising. Given how close McGarry was to both Clarke and Mac Diarmada, the news could hardly have come as a surprise to him.
Sometimes afterwards, McGarry called on Liberty Hall, the ostensible reason to ask Connolly for an article on the Irish Citizen Army (presumably for the Irish Freedom, the IRB organ that he and Mac Diarmada worked on). The two had been on friendly terms for a number of years, McGarry having given Connolly a weekly article during the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in a gesture of solidary.
As McGarry was editor of the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral souvenir booklet (in addition to the other hats he wore in service to the cause), the topic of conversation turned to that of the deceased Fenian.
“What’s the good of talking about Rossa?” Connolly asked, according to McGarry’s recollections in his BHM Statement. “Rossa wanted to fight England when England was at peace. You fellows want to fight when she is at war.”
When McGarry finally departed from Liberty Hall, it was with a promise from Connolly that the latter would provide the sought-after article. In return, McGarry would talk with him further. After McGarry had passed onto Clarke what he and Connolly had talked about, Clarke paid Liberty Hall a visit of his own. Shortly afterwards Connolly became the newest member of their budding cell. Although McGarry did not say no explicitly in his BMH Statement, it is clear that he was used to ‘feel out’ Connolly, who was at that point an outsider to the planning and an unknown factor needing to be brought into the fold.
McGarry would later publicly describe Connolly as “the man who…taught me to be a Republican.” Republicanism from a different angle, perhaps, but Republicanism all the same. In private, however, he remembered Connolly as a man of great courage and intelligence but also one who was headstrong, naïve and easily manipulated by the far wilier Clarke. For all his extravagant praise of the socialist, it was the Fenian who truly taught McGarry how to be a Republican.
Bumps on the Road
Preparations for an uprising continued, although not always smoothly. “It’s all right, Tom, it’s not loaded,” McGarry told Clarke as he playfully pointed a pistol at him, near the end of January 1916.
Both men were given an impromptu lesson in firearms safety when the supposedly safe gun went off and hit Clarke in the elbow. The bullet was surreptitiously removed, along with stray bone fragments, at the Mater Hospital the next morning. Clarke never recovered full use of his wounded right arm, forcing him to learn how to use a revolver with his left hand in time for the Rising in April, though he was magnanimous enough not to hold it against McGarry.
On a more positive note, Mac Diarmada visited McGarry in a jolly mood on the 19th April, five days before the start, telling him that Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers and reluctant ally to the IRB, had “agreed to everything” in regards to the planned uprising.
MacNeill, however, would turn out to be not as agreeable as believed.
McGarry was making his way back home from Mass on the morning of the 23rd, having stayed the night with Clarke, when he read in the press MacNeill’s orders to cancel the planned rising. McGarry walked home in a daze to find Michael Collins, having come over for breakfast. The two ate in dumbstruck silence after McGarry showed Collins the newspaper, and then they left for Liberty Hall where the IRB Military Council was struggling to comprehend the new development.
McGarry found Clarke who, for the first time since he had known him, appeared tired and crestfallen. The two walked in silence to Clarke’s home where the older man was recovered enough to lambaste MacNeill’s actions as the vilest of treacheries. When it came to addressing the subject for his BMH Statement, McGarry preferred to adopt a tone of dignified, if somewhat disdainful silence:
I do not propose to go into the pros and cons of the matter. Reams of paper have been covered with mostly ill-informed statements and speculations and other reams are I am told written for later publications. And so I leave it.
Such pros and cons, statements and speculations, were to be merely academic. Countermanding orders or no, the Rising was going ahead. Clarke was sure on that, and McGarry would be at his side for it as always.
James Rowan, a 15-year old telegraph messenger, was idling away time in the delivery room of the General Post Office (GPO) on the morning of the 24th April when the policeman on duty came in, wanting to use the phones there to contact his superiors, having just been disarmed by Irish Volunteers.
The phones were found to be out of order. Looking out of the rear window of the delivery room, Rowan and the other staff saw the rest of their colleagues and some British soldiers, also disarmed, being marshalled out into the yard. The delivery room occupants stayed where they were but when they heard a rousing cheer, the Inspector in charge risked opening the door for a peek outside.
“Quick, look at what these fellows are doing,” the Inspector called to the rest. Rowan joined him to see a cab had pulled up outside in Princes Street North, next to the GPO. Volunteers were hard at work, either smashing the windows of buildings with the butts of their rifles or lifting boxes of ammunition from the cab to hand to their comrades through the broken windows.
A stern voice demanded that the Inspector hand over his keys. The speaker emerged from the blind side of the door, holding a revolver, and Rowan saw a glimpse of a face with horn-rimmed glasses before he retreated back inside:
That face was photographed in my mind…The demander of the keys I recognised after the Rebellion from photographs in the papers giving particulars of those who had been arrested and identified as being prominently associated with the movement. He was Sean McGarry, who may be able to confirm the account of this incident.
The Inspector wisely complied and threw his keys onto the footpath. The door was slammed shut, locking the occupants in before they were released by the Volunteers later that afternoon.
McGarry left the GPO on Monday evening to take command of the Radio Transmitting Station in Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. He returned in time to lead a hunt for supplies on a jewellery store at the corner of Abbey Street (three pairs of binoculars and some watches were found and taken).
For the most part, however, McGarry remained in the post office with Clarke. He was to provide his BMH Statement with little about his activities during the fighting, pleading poor memory:
I have little to say about Easter Week. I have a very clear recollection of all that happened within my observation but after Tuesday I cannot for the life of me separate the days.
Nonetheless, he remembered enough to take the time in his BMH Statement to correct a passage in Frank O’Connor’s biography, The Big Fellow, about Clarke losing his cool under pressure. McGarry insisted that Clarke had remained resolute and determined (evidently a well-read man, McGarry also took the Breton writer Louis le Roux to task for some unflattering remarks in the latter’s book on Clarke).
On Thursday, the 27th, McGarry was part of a team sent over to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on the other side of Princes Street North from the GPO. While crossing the street, the party came under fire, with McGarry narrowly avoiding becoming a casualty. Having arrived unscathed, the men broke through the walls of the office to the neighbouring building. The need for an escape route was rapidly becoming an acute one but when the GPO was evacuated the next day, it was in the opposite direction, to Moore Street.
McGarry was one of the last to leave the post office, ensuring that the building was clear as per Clarke’s orders. He had already eaten a last meal of mutton chops with Clarke, Mac Diarmada and several others. The mood was a resolutely jolly one, McGarry jokingly asking if he would go to Hell for eating meat on this particular Friday.
After the withdrawal, it took a while for McGarry to find Clarke again in Moore Street. Clarke and MacDermott were discussing the possibility of surrender, the former dolefully quiet, the latter close to tears.
McGarry felt too drained to contribute a word to the discussion. Only recently he had been weighing up the odds with a wounded and bedridden Connolly for a successful counterattack on British-held barricades, and now it had come to this. While the negotiations to surrender were on, Clarke, seconded by Mac Diarmada, gave permission for the rest to escape. Though McGarry passed this on to others, he remained where he was, committed to the cause and the event he had helped set in motion.
After the Rising
After the surrender, McGarry was led away by British soldiers to Richmond Barracks along with Clarke and others. En route, Clarke was able to pass on a hastily scribbled note to his wife, via an obliging British soldier. The letter expressed his pride in the Rising and the men who had helped him carry it out: “Sean [Mac Diarmada] is with me and McG [McGarry] – They are all heroes.”
Upon reaching the barracks, McGarry was observed being picked out by police officers along with the other leaders such as Clarke, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Mac Diarmada in a backhanded tribute to his importance.
As Prisoner #28, McGarry was court-martialled in a batch of four that included Willie Pearse. All but Pearse pleaded not guilty. McGarry’s defence that he had known nothing about anything until the occupation of the GPO, after which he had been only a messenger with no position or rank of any kind, belied his true role behind the scenes.
His defence must have been convincing. Though all four prisoners were found ‘Guilty. Death’, McGarry was singled out for a recommendation of mercy on the grounds that he had been “misled by the leaders” of the Rising. He was sentenced instead to eight years of penal servitude.
So quickly had the court-martial been held that prisoners were still arriving in Richmond Barracks. There was some astonishment at the extent of the sentence, although it was a far lighter sentence than Clarke’s, who McGarry saw for the last time on the day before his mentor’s execution.
 Lynch, pp. 94-5 ; Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 49-50 ; Irish Times, Irish Independent 05/03/1919 ; Morrissey., Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014), p. 144
 McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368), p. 26 ; biographical details from White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James) ; Gleeson, Joseph (BMH / WS 367), p. 8
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 211. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html ; McGarry, pp. 21-2
 Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014), p. 150
 Cosgrave, Liam T. (BMH / WS 268), p. 8 ; McGarry, p. 26
Bureau of Military History Statements
Braniff, Daniel, WS 222
Cosgrave, Liam T., 268
Daly, Seamus, WS 360
Daly, William D., WS 291
Dore, Eamon T., WS 392
Gleeson, Joseph, WS 367
Henderson, Frank, 821
Kelly, Patrick J., WS 781
Lynch, Michael, WS 511
McGarry, Seán, WS 368
O’Reilly, Michael William, WS 886
Rowan, James, 871
Sullivan, Mrs. T.M., WS 653
Barton, Brian. The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010)
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])
Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)
Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014)
Morrissey, Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014)
Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)
White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)