The struggle had been a hard one but at last the three men, Colm Ó Lochlainn, Denis Daly and Sam Windrim, could claim a victory – something otherwise in short supply – when they reached the mountain pass of Bealach Óisín. This was despite the plaintive protests of their car, with its hissing, spluttering engine, which had forced the trio to get out and push the floundering vehicle over the last few yards. For a long while afterwards, all they could do was slump over the bonnet, utterly exhausted, but on the brink of escape from Co. Kerry.
As it was now dark, the three men slept as best they could, huddled together in the rear seat. Though they did not know it yet, Ó Lochlainn and Daly were all that remained of a five-strong team who had left Dublin the day before, on Good Friday 1916, as part of the opening moves in a national upheaval set to happen the following week at Easter.
Not that Ó Lochlainn knew much about it. Despite his place on the Irish Volunteers Executive, and his rank as captain on the staff of Joseph Plunkett, their Director of Intelligence, he had only been told the day before, Holy Thursday, when Plunkett briefed Ó Lochlainn about an operation he was to undertake in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, involving a wireless station near there to be dismantled and removed elsewhere.
Even then, Ó Lochlainn was ignorant as to the whys, until another high-ranking figure in the Irish Volunteers, J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, stopped by later that Thursday at Ó Lochlainn’s house in Dublin, seeking to have some gaps in his own knowledge filled:
I told Ginger where I was going and he informed me he was off the following morning to take charge of the Volunteers of the Kilkenny and Carlow districts. He told me that a rising had been planned to start on Easter Sunday…but at that time he knew very little about what was going to take place, and wanted to know if I knew anything to confirm the rumours in circulation.
Ó Lochlainn did not. Daly knew more, albeit only a little, from attending a series of strategy meetings with Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael Collins, Con Keating and Dan Sheehan:
As I understood it at the time, the main purpose of our mission was to enable wireless contact to be made with a German arms ship (I don’t think name of vessel was mentioned), which was expected at Fenlit on Easter Sunday.
The second objective was apparently to misdirect any Royal Navy warships off the South-West coast, via the wireless messages from the pilfered equipment, away from Tralee Bay where the German vessel in question would land. However “I cannot, from personal knowledge, confirm or deny, that there was such an intention,” Daly later wrote. “It is possible, but I do not recollect any discussion on the matter.”
Years might pass but much about the event that had changed Ireland irrevocably would remain obscured in ignorance, even to its participants.
Daly guessed that if anyone in the team had the dummy codes to send, it would have been Keating, a Kerryman who was to be their wireless operator. He and Daly were selected for the group, along with Ó Lochlainn and Sheehan, who had previously lived in London, where he helped procure rifles to be smuggled over to Ireland. Another conspirator, Joseph O’Rourke, was intended to go as the fifth man but Mac Diarmada decided at the last minute to keep him in Dublin to help coordinate the upcoming revolt and sent Charles Monahan, a Belfast native, in his place.
Who was in charge is uncertain, as both Ó Lochlainn and Daly claimed command in their respective accounts. The two men met for the first time on the Friday morning at the Ballast Office, Westmoreland Street, where they were introduced to each other by Michael Collins, who then handed them their train tickets for the journey.
Ó Lochlainn had come on a bicycle, which he left behind with Collins. When Ó Lochlainn later asked for its return, Collins told him that his bicycle had ended up in a barricade on Abbey Street during Easter Week.
Entering the Kingdom
The team headed down to Killarney by train, with Ó Lochlainn and Daly in one carriage, and Keating, Sheehan and Monahan on another, in order to throw off suspicion. Code words for their arrival had been prepared in advance – “Are you John?” “Yes, William sent me” – but they seemed so obvious that it was agreed not to bother with them.
As it turned out, there were only two cars waiting at Killarney Station – a Maxwell and a Briscoe – and both with Limerick plates, which rendered any code words unnecessary. Keating got into one, while the other four men, for appearance’s sake, walked into town until reaching the College, at which point the cars picked them up.
That is, at least, according to Ó Lochlainn’s version. In Daly’s, the group first had lunch in a pub in Killarney, before going to a road junction outside town at the appointed time:
The cars were there. Both cars were the property of Tommy McInerney of Limerick. He drove himself and the other was driven by a driver of whose name I do not remember. We had never met either man before.
The second wheelman, Sam Windrim, had been drafted in at the last minute when domestic circumstances made it impossible for the intended driver, John Quilty, to participate. Both McInerney and Quilty were Limerick Volunteers but Windrim was a newcomer and so it was deemed necessary for the other two to first take him to the privacy of an upstairs office in Limerick and swear him to secrecy.
Again, Ó Lochlainn and Daly stayed together in the Maxwell, the remaining three in the Briscoe. The former group were driven ahead by Windrim, with the others at their tail, staying close enough to see each other’s lights. “It was never intended that we should separate,” remembered Daly.
Ó Lochlainn watched the hedgerows and stone walls of the Kerry landscape pass by, while the sky deepened into twilight and then night. He also kept a close eye on the Briscoe to the rear, though not closely enough, because, after three miles out of Killorglin town, he realised that he could no longer see the headlights. The other car was gone.
They doubled back to search, straining their eyes through the gloom, to no avail. They stopped and waited, hoping that it was just a case of engine trouble or a flat tyre, and that their comrades would reappear at any moment but, as an hour passed, that no longer seemed feasible. Deciding that their mission took precedence, Ó Lochlainn, Daly and Windrim pressed on to Cahersiveen, only to be stopped on the road by a whistle-blast from ahead.
Two figures stepped into the headlights, showing themselves to be a sergeant and a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Ó Lochlainn instinctively reached for the revolver he had borrowed from Plunkett.
Escape from Kerry
“Will we shoot?” asked Daly.
“No,” Ó Lochlainn replied. “I let someone else start the war. Talk will do for these fellows.”
Ó Lochlainn’s instincts proved correct. The three passengers explained that they were medical students to the RIC pair, who proceeded to give the car the briefest of searches. When they found a box and a bag, the explanation that the first held boots and the other clothes was enough to dissuade the policemen from peering inside.
In truth, the trio were equally ignorant of the contents, and it was only after the RIC men waved them through that they had a look for themselves. What they found was enough to startle Ó Lochlainn:
Oh! sergeant; that box contained two jemmies, a keyhole saw and a few other trinkets. The bag held an assorted collection of electrical appliances, two hatches and a heavy hammer.
Had the police been more thorough, the ‘medical students’ would have had a hard time explaining why their profession required these particular items. As it were:
Over the edge went the lot, owners having no further use for same. The job was off – a few words let drop by the sergeant had let out that a platoon of soldiers had come…and that all police units were on patrol.
Ó Lochlainn and Daly agreed that the only thing to do was leave Kerry, since neither of them had the necessary technical knowledge to dismantle and rearrange the wireless set as intended. That responsibility would have lain with Keating and possibly Sheehan, and they were MIA with Monahan. Given the agitated state of the authorities, it was surmised that the second car had been stopped back in Killorglin and its occupants arrested.
The only route out of the Kingdom ran through the narrow pass at Bealach Óisín, and to there they went, or at least tried to, for both the hilly terrain and their car fought them every inch of the way. For an hour they struggled uphill in the dark, much to the perturbation of their vehicle:
She was slipping and spitting and racing and faltering and stumbling and once she got one hind wheel into a gull and nearly turned over, and then we pushed and heaved and slipped and swore and called on the Lord and groaned and grunted until we arrived at last where the story begins.
But, for them, it was the end. The car almost made it to Killarny, before breaking down for good. Ó Lochlainn and Daly left Windrim with his defeated Maxwell, and walked to the train station in time to catch the morning ride back to Dublin. While changing carriages at Mallow, Co. Cork, they received word that there had been arrests made in Kerry.
But not of Keating, Sheehan or Monahan. Ó Lochlainn only learnt of their fate a month later when he chanced upon a newspaper article. It had been reported earlier, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April but, given the brief attention the story received in the Irish Times, a reader could be forgiven for overlooking it:
THREE MEN DROWNED IN KERRY – MOTOR CAR JUMPS INTO A RIVER
Three men, whose names are unknown, were drowned in the River Laune, near Killorglin, Thursday night. They were motoring towards Tralee and, taking the wrong turn, the car went over the quay wall, and the three men were drowned. The chauffeur escaped. Two of the bodies were recovered last evening.
That the newspaper incorrectly dated the incident to Thursday and not the Friday shows how little was known at the time. John Quilty, in whose car the drowned men had been, heard that McInerney, the driver and sole survivor, had lost his way and asked for directions from a young girl on the roadside.
“First turn on your right,” she said, the direction leading an oblivious McInerney, driving almost blindly in the dark, down a cul-de-sac to Ballykissane Pier, over which they plunged.
Sheehan and Monahan went down with the Briscoe, but, as McInerney later told Quilty, he and Keating managed to pull free and swam together in the cold waters, shouting for help until a light appeared to guide them to shore.
Keating never made it, suddenly disappearing beneath the surface with a cry of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. McInerney pressed on until he reached dry land, where he was assisted by Patrick Begley, a schoolteacher who, as luck would finally have it, possessed enough Fenian feeling to hide McInerney’s gun before the RIC could find it on him.
Supplied with a policeman’s uniform in place of his wet clothes, McInerney fenced with the questions posed to him, insisting to the RIC that he knew nothing about the other men and had only been hired to drive them to Cahersiveen. When Windrim – after seeing Ó Lochlainn and Daly off out of Kerry – and Quilty, whose number plate was on the salvaged Briscoe, were picked up in turn by the authorities, they too kept schtum, insisting on only the most innocent of motives for all involved.
Coming to a Halt
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the newspapers, a second report concerning a most unusual occurrence in Kerry was published by the Press Bureau on that same day of Easter Monday:
The Secretary of the Admiralty announces – During the period between p.m. April 20 and p.m. April 21 an attempt to land arms and ammunition in Ireland was made by a vessel under the guise of a neutral merchant ship, but in reality a German auxiliary…The auxiliary sank and a number of prisoners was made.
It was but one mishap that slowly but surely unravelled the plans for the Rising.
Captain Jeremiah O’Connell had assembled ten Kerrymen from his Cahersiveen Company on Easter Sunday, the most he could find on short notice. As it was he who had dispatched Keating to Dublin to answer a request for a man trained as a wireless operator, he was more in the loop than most.
He had also been told to find a pilot for the boat that was to escort their German visitors to shore when they arrived, at which point O’Connell would lead his squad to Tralee by bicycle and capture the barracks, railway station and post office. The Cahersiveen Volunteers were on their way to do just that when, upon reaching Killorglin, they learnt of the tragedy at Ballykissane. The earthly remains of their fellow Kerryman, Keating, was already lying in the courthouse.
Continuing on to Tralee, they next discovered that things had gone from bad to worse: not only had the German vessel been captured but fresh orders from Eoin MacNeill, their Chief of Staff, had come through to call off the whole venture, with the would-be rebels ordered back to their homes. There was nothing left for O’Connell and his subordinates to do but just that.
As it happened, even if the five men had succeeded in obtaining the wireless radios, the mission of the German ship – the Aud – could still have only ended in defeat. Messages transmitted to New York were to have been received by sympathetic Irish-Americans and then forwarded to the German embassy to ensure that the Aud appeared off the Kerry coast at the assigned time and with knowledge of the signals to give and receive from the shore.
For Want of a Nail…
Such an intervention from a friendly power could tip the odds decisively in favour of the Rising. When Patrick McCartan, whose role was to help facilitate these trans-Atlantic communications, met one of his co-conspirators, Tom Clarke, in Dublin, he found that:
Tom was enthusiastic about the prospect. He said there were at least 5,000 Germans coming and he was all enthusiastic about how thorough the Germans were and that they would do things in a big way, so that I left him for the first train next morning as enthusiastic as himself.
As it turned out, the rebels had severely overestimated their ‘gallant allies in Europe’. No one seemed to have realised that the Aud, already on course for Ireland:
…had no wireless. They acted on the assumption that the Germans were so thorough and perfect in all their arrangements that there would have been a means of communicating with the Aud.
The result was that the ship arrived on the Thursday, the 20th April, three days earlier than the expected Sunday, with no one present to receive them with signals or pilot-boats. The crew waited in the waters of Tralee Bay for twenty hours before passing warships in the Royal Navy grew suspicious and intercepted the Aud as it tried to escape to the high seas.
Its cargo of 20,000 rifles fell short of the 5,000 soldiers Clarke had been anticipating but the loss was still sufficient enough for MacNeill – already skittish about their chances – to conclude that insurgency was no longer practical. With that decision came the cancellation orders that Jeremiah O’Connell and other Irish Volunteers all over the country received in time to stop them in their tracks on Easter Sunday.
Though the Rising would go ahead the next day regardless, it did so in a piecemeal manner, limited to the capital and a handful of other areas, and did not last the week.
Small wonder, then, that when Frank Henderson, one of the participants-to-be in Easter Week, was reading the evening papers about the mishaps in Kerry, he had the sinking feeling “that we were going to have a repetition of all the previous insurrections.”
Rarely had a wrong turn led to so many woes.
The Living and the Dead
There was a slightly eerie postscript to the episode. Alf Monahan had been in Galway during the Easter Rising, one of the few areas that did see action. When the rebels decided on the Saturday that further resistance was useless, Monahan accompanied Liam Mellows and Frank Hynes, the Galway commander and a company captain respectively, in going on the run, through the Galway wilderness and into Clare, where they were sheltered by the local Volunteers in a tiny, hillside cottage.
When provided with newspapers, the trio were able to catch up with events, from the heavy fighting in Dublin to the executions afterwards, including the drowning in Kerry. As only two names – Keating and Sheehan – were given, Alf Monahn did not know at first that the third victim was his brother, Charles.
They stayed in the cottage until Mellows left for America on the orders of the new revolutionary leadership, after which Hynes was taken to Tipperary. When Monahan’s turn came near Christmas, he believed that the car that drove him away to safety was the same vehicle in which his brother had drowned eight months ago, with even the same chauffeur at the wheel, Tommy McInerney.
In this, Alf was mistaken, for it was the Maxwell car he was in, while Charles had taken his last ride that fateful night in the Briscoe. All the same, it must have made for an uncomfortable journey.
It was just another morning for Constable Bernard Reilly as he waited out his shift at Ardfert Station, Co. Kerry, on the 21st April 1916, Good Friday, when a man came by to report a boat seen down by Banna Strand. Reilly passed this on to his superior, Sergeant Tom Hearne, who went to investigate with Constable Robert Larke.
All three were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force tasked with upholding law and order throughout Ireland – British law and order, that is. It was a centuries-old state of affairs that some, unbeknown to Reilly and his colleagues, were planning to change and soon – within the next few days, in fact.
Hearne and Larkin returned to the station at 11 am with a horse and cart, on top of which was a boat. As well as the abandoned vessel, the two RIC men had found on the beach three Mauser pistols, some ammunition, two or three signalling lamps and several maps, including one of the locality. Talk about town was of three strangers seen walking inland from the direction of Banna Strand, presumably having come in off the boat in question.
Sergeant Hearne sent a report via the Ardfert post office to the RIC headquarters in Tralee and then took Larke and Reilly to search for the rumoured trio. After fruitlessly knocking on the doors of houses in the vicinity, Hearne, accompanied by Reilly, decided to give McKenna’s Fort a try. While the sergeant treated himself to a smoke outside, Reilly entered the Fort, if that was not too grand a name for the overgrown, long-abandoned rath.
As he did so:
…a man approached me from the shrubbery. He was a tall gentleman. He looked foreign to me and not generally the type one meets in a street. There was nothing unusual about his clothes. He wore a beard and had more or less an aristocratic appearance.
This regal-looking individual introduced himself as Richard Morton, a writer from England who was in Kerry researching for a book he was writing on St Brendan the Navigator, a local celebrity from antiquity. As he spoke, Morton fiddled with a sword-stick, drawing the blade in and out, while glancing over his shoulder as if looking for someone.
So that there would be no misunderstanding, Reilly advised the other man to refrain from unsheathing his weapon or else he would shoot with his own. Actually, the rifle Reilly carried was unloaded but there was no need for the twitchy visitor to know otherwise.
When Sergeant Hearne appeared, Morton repeated his story to him. Not wholly convinced by this, Hearne asked him if he could come with them to the station, to which the self-proclaimed Englishman agreed. He had probably guessed he had little in the way of choice on the matter.
The two policemen and their surprise acquaintance walked to the public road, about seventy-five yards from the fort, where they came across a boy called Martin Collins, who was driving a pony and trap. Commandeering a ride, if temporarily, Reilly put Morton on the trap and, sitting firmly beside him, rode off, with Hearne and Collins waiting behind.
Reilly took him to a farmhouse where lived Mary Gorman, who had first spotted the three mystery men leaving from Banna Strand while she milked the cows. After Gorman identified Morton as one of the trio, Reilly returned with him to where Hearne and Collins were waiting.
The RIC men gave the pony and trap back to the boy, who, his curiosity piqued, followed the small group of Hearne, Reilly and Morton as they walked the mile back to Ardfert Station. It was by then midday. Collins handed a slip of paper to Reilly, which their new friend had dropped. Written on it was part of a code – useless in itself, but something which would later serve as evidence in a trial that resulted in the sentence of death for ‘Richard Morton’ or, rather, Sir Roger Casement.
For Casement, it was a strangely anticlimactic end to an adventure that had promised so much at the start. “At last in Berlin! The journey done – the effort perhaps only begun!” he wrote in his diary in October 1914. “Shall I succeed? Will they see the great cause aright and understand all it may mean to them, no less to Ireland?”
The answer, initially, was ‘yes’; his new allies did indeed see the worth of the mission Casement brought before them. A succession of German officials listened sympathetically as he spoke of his dreams of enlisting their nation’s help in securing the freedom of his own, though their sanguinity could give even him pause. When Casement warned Baron Wilheim von Stumm that Britain had the means to prolong its current war with Germany for years, the Director of the Political Department at the Foreign Office laughed.
“What can she do to us?” von Stumm replied. “Her fleet is become a laughing stock.”
By April 1916, almost two years later, Casement was straining to escape his host country. “My last day in Berlin! Thank God!” Even a possible fate at the end of an English noose did nothing to deter him. “Oh! To see the misted hills of Kerry and the coast and to tread the fair strand of Tralee!”
He had already been informed, on the 30th March, about the planned uprising in Ireland. As the Germans initially declined to provide any weapons or men to help, Casement could foretell only disaster. “I said I could guarantee no revolution and that I sincerely hoped there would be none!”
The next day, he was wheezing in bed, struck down by a lung congestion, but no less committed to returning, if only to put a stop to this rebellion-in-the-works. That the Germans had at last consented to provide help, in the form of a steamer loaded with weapons for Tralee Bay, on Easter Monday, but only on condition of the Irish rebels being out in the field already on the Sunday, was enough to send Casement into a rage: “The utter callousness & indifference here – only seeking bloodshed in Ireland.”
The only thing left for him to do was board the submarine provided for him and put Baron von Stumm’s lofty dismissal of the Royal Navy to the test.
Casement was not looking forward to the journey – twelve days, he reckoned, inside a stinking, suffocating confinement – but it would be worth it once he reached his homeland. He had been assured they would make it in time but Casement nursed his doubts: “My first fear is that we shall never land – but be kept off the shore until the ‘rebellion’ breaks out.”
And that was the last line in his diary, though there was still much to happen. Too much, and also too little.
Accompanying Casement on his return home were Captain Robert Monteith and Sergeant Daniel Bailey. The former had come to Germany to assist Casement with setting up the ‘Irish Brigade’, made up of Irish POWs, while the latter was one of these said recruits, before the project was set aside as a failure.
The Germany Navy had at least rowed back on its original demands for an Irish rebellion to have broken out the day before the weapons shipment landed. Instead, a vessel was now set to arrive between Holy Thursday, the 20th April, and Easter Sunday, the 23rd, the window of four days being regarded by the German planners as sufficient to account for the vagaries of weather. As the insurrection was timed for the Sunday, according to the missives from the revolutionary leadership in Dublin, the haul of 20,000 rifles should arrive in time for the rebels to be thus equipped for when they set forth.
As he listened to these arrangements being laid out at the Admiralty in Berlin, Monteith was dismayed at what he considered to be a pitifully inadequate donation of weapons, and said as much. It was brutally clear, however, that that was all the Irish cause could expect from its ‘gallant allies’. At least a bedridden Casement was elated when Monteith brought the news to him – any development was better than none at this point.
Nonetheless, the three Irishmen found much to brood over as the U-boat took them over the northern tip of Britain and down the Irish west coast. They had been away for so long that they knew little about how things stood in their country. Nor could they be sure about the Aud – the steamer carrying the rifles – arriving in time, if at all, and whether the rebellion Casement dreaded would happen regardless.
When the U-boat passed the mouth of the Shannon, on the evening of the 20th April, the trio watched from the conning tower, peering into the starless night for the pilot boat that was due to guide them but its twin green lights – the prearranged signal – never materialised.
Other lights came and went but never the ones they so desperately sought. Neither did the Aud appear, though the Irishmen had spotted it earlier in the day. Finally, the submarine captain announced that they could wait no longer and set the course for full speed towards Tralee Bay. As the three Irishmen prepared to disembark, Monteith loaded his pistol, and then tried teaching Casement how to use his.
“It is quite possible we may either kill or be killed,” Monteith warned but Casement had never handled a gun before and, besides, he appeared too sick to be of any use in a fight. Monteith suggested some sleep but, what with all the worry, that was also unlikely to happen.
Instead, they gloomily discussed their odds. While they had evaded British patrol ships, Casement did not think the German steamer would be so lucky. Other than the loss of the much-needed weaponry, such a find, Casement feared, would almost certainly put the authorities on their guard.
Further talk was curtailed by a German officer telling them that it was time to go ashore. When Monteith saw the size of the boat that was to carry them, he had the presence of mind to request three lifebelts. Casement sat in the stern, Monteith the bow, and Bailey in between as the boat was lowered onto the lazily rolling waves. Its duty done, the submarine receded into the dark, leaving the three companions to face the unknown.
Hunting for Help
As the captain had refused them a motor, lest the sound betray the German presence – concern for the Irishmen was not so forthcoming – the tiny crew had to make do with rowing. Somehow they avoided drowning, though just about. A landlubber at heart, Monteith pushed his oar too deeply and went overboard, head first, before Bailey hauled him back.
When they were close enough to shore, Monteith jumped out, standing up to his waist in the water while Bailey unloaded, first their equipment and then Casement, who was practically an invalid by then. Monteith tried scuttling the boat but the wood was too hard for his knife, the only tool he had at hand, and so he abandoned the task.
But the wretched tub was not yet finished with me. As I was about to leave, a wave struck it, and drove it sideways on top of my right foot. This wrenched my ankle, adding a little to my general discomfort. I scrambled away, and went up to the beach.
All three men were stretched out on the sand, soaked to the skin, bereft of sleep and food save for the little they could keep down during the past few days of seasickness. Casement looked the worst, being barely conscious, and Monteith had to make him move about so as to restore some semblance of circulation to his limbs.
With dawn fast approaching, the trio knew they had to act. Given the perilous state of Casement’s health, it was decided to leave him in hiding while the other two walked into Tralee, their plan from there being to procure a motorcar for Dublin. So as to not stand out when reaching civilisation, they buried their Mauser pistols, ammunition belts, field glasses and the rest of the equipment, save their overcoats, in the beach.
Striking inland, they stumbled into some bogland, as if they were not damp enough already. Sunrise gave them some comfort, as well as a better view, and, coming to firmer land, they found a ruined old castle which they had been considering as the best place to leave Casement. Seeing it in the cold light of day, however, the group were forced to rethink that plan – Monteith did not think the castle large enough to hide a cat – and so it was agreed to keep going and find a better site.
As they passed a farmhouse on the road:
Looking over the wall, we saw a young girl, her hair tousled and untidy, blinking at the sun and leaning on a half door. She saw us, and stared in a manner that showed it was unusual for strangers to pass along that road so early in the morning.
Considering their bedraggled state, it was hardly surprising that they would attract attention, from Mary Gorman or anyone, at any time of the day. The trio were more careful when a cart rumbled their way on the road. Crossing the fence to the side, they hid among the bushes until the cart passed, its two passengers seemingly none the wiser.
Half an hour later, they had a second bit of good fortune when finding the remnants of an ancient hill-fort, thick with shrubbery. That seemed an opportune place to leave Casement, better than the previous choice in any case, and so the other two pressed on while their comrade recuperated as best he could.
Following the shore road, Monteith and Bailey were able to cover the eight miles to Tralee in good time. Carefully avoiding the RIC station at Ardfert – whose occupants would soon be paying a visit to Casement in McKenna’s Fort – they saw no one except a surly farmer, who did not bother to return their greeting, and then a sole policeman, who took one look at the pair before continuing on his way. The two men breathed a sigh of relief at this timely piece of official negligence.
It was 7 am on Good Friday morning when they reached Tralee. There were some people about but no shops open, save for a few newsagents. Both Monteith and Bailey were so ignorant of the area that they decided their only chance lay in finding someone who wore a tricolour or, failing that, a newsagent that sold the more radical papers in the hope that their sympathies were as republican as their stock.
They had no such luck until coming across a hairdresser’s saloon, with posters outside of The Irish Volunteer and The Worker’s Republic, exactly the sort of titles they were seeking. The saloon was not open but the neighbouring door was and so the pair took the chance of accepting the invite of a shave from the man standing there:
We entered and found ourselves in a news agent’s shop, which was lighted by the doorway only as the shutters were not yet off the windows. The proprietor, whose name was [George] Spicer, informed me that he worked both the news agent’s and hair dressing shops, and that his son would be down in a minute to shave me.
Having gone too far to back away now, Monteith asked Spicer for the name and address of whoever led the Irish Volunteers around there, adding that he and his companion were on important business concerning them. As proof of his urgency, he pointed to their wet clothes.
After thinking it over, Spicer called his son down and told him to go fetch Austin Stack, the commander in question. All Monteith and Bailey could do in the meantime was wait: “We were counting the minutes as we thought of poor Casement away out in the old fort, wet, cold and hungry, waiting for a car that never came.”
When Stack arrived, he was accompanied by his aide, Con Collins, who had met Monteith before and was able to vouch for him to his commandant. Monteith gave them the basic details of Casement’s plight, including his need to go to Dublin and get in touch with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers there. Stack promptly dispatched a man to find a motor car for that purpose.
When Monteith asked after the German ship with the arms, Stack replied that his orders were that the vessel in question was not due to reach Tralee Bay until Easter Sunday, in two days’ time:
He had no information of the ship being already in the bay. I urged that he send a pilot out at once and told him what the ship carried. I told him there was no artillery coming, neither officers nor artillery men. Stack made no comment beyond saying that as far as his orders went, the ship was not to come in until Sunday night.
In fact, there had been talk of a strange vessel sighted off Fenit Point on the previous day, Thursday, leading to a trusted Volunteer, William Mullins, being sent there to investigate. After talking to a few locals, Mullins returned to Tralee to report his belief that the rumours had been entirely spurious.
The Larger Project
And now these two outsiders had appeared out of nowhere to tell Stack that his orders from Dublin were wrong. That they were there at all put him in an awkward position, threatening as they did, with their mere presence and unsolicited updates, the plans for the Rising in Kerry.
For Stack, the event had been a long time in the making, ever since he was summoned to Dublin, sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, for an interview with Patrick Pearse, on the grounds of the latter’s school of St Enda’s. Accompanying Stack was Alf Cotton, a Belfast native who had been sent to Kerry by their mutual superiors to help Stack lay the groundwork for….something.
That something was revealed by Pearse to be a full-scale insurrection of the Irish Volunteers throughout the country, timed for the Easter Week of 1916. A series of parades would provide cover for the different units to muster, after which they would act on their respective instructions.
Those for the Tralee Company were more elaborate than most. Besides the usual targets – such as the RIC barracks, the post office and the train station – the Kerry Volunteers were to greet a ship carrying German arms at Fenit Pier and then help with the logistics of transporting the cargo, via commandeered trains, along the west of Ireland, where the Volunteer companies on the route would take their share.
Concerned about the difficulties the vessel in question would face, from the dangers of fog or storm, to running the blockade of British warships, Cotton suggested alternatives, such as landing the supplies in smaller amounts at different points, or even the use of Zeppelins to bypass the Royal Navy altogether, but Pearse insisted that the arrangements had already been set in motion.
Pearse also stressed the need for absolute secrecy. Information was to be limited to a select few, only when necessary, and never more than needed. Previous rebellions had floundered from a fatal leakage of intelligence, a negligence which Pearse was determined would not be repeated this time.
“Secrecy was to be preserved up to the very last minute,” as Cotton described. “Much depended on the element of surprise both for our local activities and for the larger project.”
Pearse reinforced these instructions on a visit to Tralee, three or four weeks before Easter Week. In particular, Stack was to keep his men on a tight leash, at least until Easter Sunday, the designated date, lest any premature deed tip their hand to the British authorities.
‘The Game is Up’
This was something Stack kept at the forefront of his mind during those hectic hours, when he struggled to fulfil the duties bestowed on him by Pearse, while juggling with the sudden demands thrust on him by Monteith and Beverley. As his widow put it:
Austin was blamed by some for not trying to organise a rescue of Sir Roger Casement and I know he felt very sore about it, but he always said his orders were definite that no shot should be fired before the start of general hostilities on Easter Sunday and he knew well that any fracas that might take place in Tralee would frustrate all the plans made for the Rising.
But first Stack made an attempt to retrieve Casement from where the newcomers said they left him. When the car Stack requested pulled up outside, he and Collins got in, along with Bailey, while Monteith stayed behind. As a guide, however, Bailey left something to be desired, ignorant as he was of the locality, with only the information that Casement was “somewhere on Banna Strand” to offer.
Which was better than nothing. Stack recruited Maurice Moriarty, a Tralee Volunteer, to put his profession as a chauffeur to use in driving him, Collins and Bailey to Banna Strand, taking care to avoid the police base at Ardfert. When they came across a horse and cart, managed by two RIC men from the opposite direction, Stack asked Bailey if the boat on top was his.
When Bailey replied that it was the same, Stack could only exclaim: “Oh, God, lads, the game is up.”
Worse, there were about twenty policemen posted about Banna Strand, obviously on the lookout. Finding Casement suddenly became the least of their concerns. “The game is up,” Stack repeated, according to Moriarty. “What are we going to do now?”
As a RIC officer, Sergeant Daniel Croly, came their way, it was quickly agreed inside the car that they would pose as innocent sightseers. It was then that one of their tyres burst, prompting the startled sergeant to accuse them of firing a gun at him. The police were clearly on edge, though how much the authorities knew was yet uncertain.
Bluffing and Brazening
When Croly had calmed down:
He then got curious and demanded an explanation of our presence on the Strand. I [Moriarty] told him my passengers were visitors on holiday, they wished to travel along the sea coast, and that I was under the impression it was possible to get to Ballyheigue by following the beach.
The sergeant did not seem wholly convinced by this but left them alone long enough for the four men to change their tyre and drive away to Lawlor’s Cross. Croly followed them there on a bicycle and continued his questioning, such as whether they had heard anything about a boat landing that morning.
When Stack replied that he did not, Croly continued: “Yes, we got the boat and we got our man, too.”
When the policeman next asked what he would do if put under arrest, Stack threatened to make a fight of it. After some more verbal toing-and-froing, Croly finally searched the car and, finding nothing of note, let them go. Even that was not the last the Volunteers saw of the sergeant, for when they drove on to Ballyheigue – to go anywhere else would have only incited more suspicion – and called into a pub:
After we were there some time I [Moriarty] saw Sergeant [Croly] going into the Post Office. I called Stack’s attention to this and Stack said, “Yes, I saw him. I suppose he is ‘phoning all over Ireland. We are done now.”
Stack’s gloom seemed justified when they travelled on to Causeway village, to be confronted by an RIC patrol on the alert for their car. Collins was searched when he got out and taken away to the barracks when a Webley revolver was found on him.
Stack made a tougher show of it, admitting that he had a loaded automatic, along with spare ammunition and some documents, but that, when asked if he had the paperwork for the gun: “No Irishman needs a certificate these days to carry firearms.”
When the sergeant in charge weakly admitted this was the case, Stack boldly went to the barracks, gun still in hand, and came out a few minutes later with Collins. Stack had brazened his way and that of his comrades out of trouble but it was clear now that the risks of keeping Bailey, a stranger to the area, around for any longer were too great. After they drove out of Causeway, they stopped at Ballymacaurin village to leave Bailey at the house of a Volunteer.
The remaining three returned to Tralee, their journey done, with Stack warning the others to deny anything if asked. As Moriarty left to park the car, he noticed an increased RIC presence on the streets. He had just finished dinner at home when another policeman came to ask about his passengers that day. Moriarty stuck to his script and insisted that the others had merely been tourists.
Stack and Collins were likewise questioned together at the former’s house by a constable, with Stack waxing indignant at how their trip that morning had been ruined by intrusive peelers. After sharing a light meal, Collins left to see a friend in town, while Stack went to the Rink, a hall rented by the Irish Volunteers for their activities.
Stack had previously called a meeting for there, ostensibly to organise a parade, set to be held on the Sunday, in two days’ time. In reality, the event was intended only as an excuse for the Volunteers to muster, just before the Rising was due to begin, a motive Stack had been keeping to himself. True to his instructions for absolute secrecy until the last possible moment, he continued the charade as he sat down to work out the details of the phoney parade with the other officers in attendance.
The session was almost concluded when Collins’ friend in town, Michael O’Flynn, came in to take Stack aside. O’Flynn told him that he had been with Collins when the RIC came to arrest the latter, and he was now passing on the other man’s request for Stack to see him in the station. Stack agreed to do so and returned to the meeting, when another piece of bad fortune arrived, courtesy of a Volunteer who had come from Ardfert on a bicycle:
I saw this scout immediately and the news that he had for me was to the effect that the Ardfert police had brought to the barracks, as a prisoner, a tall bearded man. At once I knew that this was Sir Roger Casement.
When Stack broke this news to the others in the Rink, the immediate response was a call to attempt a rescue. It was not something Stack could allow, given his orders – as he now revealed – to keep everyone quiet until the appointed time on Sunday. After dissuading the rest from taking any rash action, Stack next arranged for two couriers to be sent to inform Dublin of the developments, from Casement’s arrest to the premature arrival of the German ship.
The latter was a particular problem in Stack’s mind:
I had the view that it would be almost impossible for the vessel to escape on account of the capture of Sir Roger Casement, as the English were now certain to be keeping a sharp look-out everywhere about that part of the coast.
The two messengers knew exactly where to go when they reached Dublin. Eoin MacNeill may have been Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers but the true power of the forthcoming revolution had gathered inside Liberty Hall.
James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and several others listened as one of the Kerrymen, William Mullins, delivered his report about Casement’s arrest and how, according to Casement, there would be arms coming from Germany but no soldiers. Mullins knew nothing about any uprising, though he must have suspected something upon seeing about sixty or seventy men in a room inside Liberty Hall, busily preparing gun cartridges.
If his listeners were fazed at the news, they did not show it. “There will be no change in the original plans,” Pearse told Mullins to pass on back to Kerry.
Stack, meanwhile, had gone to the RIC barracks as requested, where he asked to speak to Collins. The constable on duty excused himself after asking the visitor to remain in the room, and there an unsuspecting Stack was waiting when, a few minutes later, the constable returned with several of his colleagues to put him under arrest.
It is unlikely that the police were aware of how effectively their capture of Stack had decapitated the Kerry Volunteers, the vast majority of whom were only dimly aware, at best, that anything was in the works. “Apart from rumours and whisperings of things to happen,” remembered Peter Browne, captain of the Scartaglin Company, “the average Volunteer had no official inkling of anything big coming off.”
The man best positioned to take over from Stack was Alf Cotton, the Volunteer organiser from Belfast, but he was nowhere to be found. Browne believed he had returned to his home city earlier in the year, apparently to take care of his sick mother. Cotton would be accused of being intentionally absent by Paddy Cahill, who, despite being next in line as battalion adjutant, knew only a little more than the rank-and-file.
When Browne interviewed him as part of a history project, “Paddy Cahill told me that he had no knowledge of the major plans for Kerry when Stack was arrested.” While Cahill knew there were weapons being shipped in, he had believed, like Stack, that they would not be due until Easter Sunday.
“It later transpired that the sinking of the Aud had completely upset the plans locally and nationally,” Browne wrote. “What the plans for this were never came to light.”
It says much about the confusion surrounding the Easter Week of 1916, even years later, that when Browne suggested he write up his version of events, Cahill replied that he had done so already and sent it to Stack’s widow for the book she was writing about her husband. Browne asked Winifred Stack about it, shortly after Cahill’s death, only to be told that she had not received any such information from him.
Monteith was better informed than most in Kerry; he, at least, knew there was supposed to be a Rising. But, in other respects, he was as woefully ignorant as any.
When the two messengers went to Dublin, Monteith assumed they were making for Eoin MacNeill as Chief of Staff. It never occurred to him that the couriers would go instead to Liberty Hall and bypass the chain of command as he knew it. Nor did his Kerry compatriots make any effort to bring him up to date.
He was a man groping in the dark, as he later described it, a fact that continued to rankle by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs: “These men with me knew that my life was not worth a moment’s purchase, yet they did not enlighten me.”
By Friday night, Monteith had learnt from the evening papers about the arrests of Stack and Collins, along with the discovery of the boat by which he and the other two had left the U-boat. “It was a peculiar report to read of one’s own adventures,” he mused.
With little else to do until the big event on Sunday, Monteith laid low in a friendly house. That the Volunteers had thought to post an armed guard inside was of some comfort, though otherwise the news on Saturday morning was hardly reassuring: British soldiers had come into Tralee by train, while armed RIC men stalked the streets of the town.
Several times, an enemy patrol would pass by the house, with Monteith watching anxiously from behind a window curtain until they had gone. When he finally ventured out, on Saturday night, it was in a workman’s garb, complete with a greasy cap over his head and chimney soot on his face.
“If the police stop us or try to arrest you,” said one of the Kerrymen to their charge, “we will open fire.”
He meant it as a reassurance, but Monteith was unimpressed. He had not made it thus far without appreciating the virtue of caution, after all. “I am the officer. I have more authority,” he replied tartly. “There is to be no firing.”
Around a dozen other men were waiting for them at the Rink, standing to attention and under the command of Paddy Cahill. At least, Monteith assumed Cahill was in charge, until the Kerryman told him that the authority was now his. Orders had come in to that effect, said Cahill, though he was coy when asked on whose authority. Monteith tried to talk himself out of it, arguing that he knew nothing about Tralee, either the area or its men, but Cahill was adamant.
Finally, Monteith gave in and assumed responsibility, however flabbergasting he found it. “Here was an amazing situation,” he wrote in his memoirs. “An officer, my senior, ordering me to take command, while he reverted to the ranks.”
At least he had his experience as an officer in the British Army to fall back on. Unfortunately, as he talked to his new subordinates in the Rink, it was apparent that the rest of the Irish Volunteers had not had the same level of training. Neither did they know much about what was to be done besides a vague notion of seizing the military barracks, RIC station, telegraph office and train station, before marching to the coastal village of Fenit and unloading the promised German arms from there. Any further details had been known only by Stack, and he was gone.
And then there was the issue of numbers. Monteith estimated he would have three hundred men at his disposal, of which only two-thirds were armed. Word was that reinforcements would join them from Dingle but no one could confirm this. Against them would be five hundred British soldiers and about two hundred policemen, and now with the advantage of surprise lost.
“I knew I had a full day’s work ahead of me,” Monteith recalled laconically.
Monteith sent the officers home for the night while he stayed in the Rink and brooded on what to do. Holy Saturday passed into Easter Sunday, the day set for the Rising, and Monteith received word that at least one of the companies outside Tralee – he spared naming the unit in question for posterity – would not be making the rendezvous with destiny, the Volunteers having decided among themselves that, in light of the absence of German assistance, there was little point in continuing.
Not so doleful, Monteith yet had hope, however slim, in the arms-ship reaching them. To that end, he sent out scouts to Fenit Point, where the vessel was to come – if at all – and another in a car to Killarney in the hope of coordinating with the Irish Volunteers there should the arms arrive and, if so, with the aim of opening the way to their comrades in Limerick. “The Limerick men, I had been told, were to hold the line of the Shannon, what section I did not know, nor for what reason.”
And these questions were to remain unknown, for the messenger to Killarney never returned. The Fenit scouts did, to report the presence of two Royal Navy warships in the bay. So much for the German vessel then, for there was no hope now of it breaking through.
At least the two messengers had reached their destination of Dublin, as shown by the return of a verbal message from James Connolly, to the effect that everything was alright and to continue as planned. What these plans were, however, remained sketchy, a situation his Kerry subordinates were of little help in remedying, often seeming to regard him with suspicion, to judge from their evasive, distinctly unhelpful responses to his queries.
In that regard, Monteith was not imagining things. “Cahill did not trust Monteith as he or none of us knew anything about him,” remembered one of the men at the time.
‘The Most Wonderful Part’
A glimmer of hope came with the only-half-expected Dingle contingent, at about 11 am, whose Volunteers had walked the thirty to forty miles to Tralee. Next were the Ballymacelligott men, adding their forty numbers to the Dingle hundred and twenty, while women from Cumann na mBan joined them to prepare some breakfast. Monteith now had about three hundred and twenty men to his command, although only two hundred were armed, either with a rifle or revolver.
Still, despite his professional misgivings, Monteith could not help but be touched by the display:
The most wonderful part of the whole thing, and perhaps the most tragic as I saw it, were boys of fourteen to seventeen years of age, marching in without as much as a walking stick with which to defend themselves, but all in the sure and certain hope of gaining a glorious victory over the usurping English.
Monteith told the Dingle captain to send out his charges with money to purchase supplies, enough for two days, and then be back at the Rink for 1.30 pm, half an hour before they would begin the Rising that would shake an empire. When Monteith asked if they were ready, the Dingle man replied: “Yes, in more ways than one, they have all been to the altar.”
It had started raining by the time a stranger, his face obscured by his collar upturned against the downpour, arrived at the Rink. When Monteith got a better look, he recognised him as Patrick Whelan, an acquaintance of his from their time together in the Limerick Volunteers. Monteith was eager to ascertain how things stood in Limerick but Whelan – after his surprise at seeing Monteith, thinking him still in Germany – brought word that abruptly rendered their plans irrelevant: all operations were to be cancelled. The Rising was over before it had even begun.
“Here was a pretty mix-up,” as Monteith put it, with masterly understatement.
The End of Easter Week
After all the drama and tension of the past few days, Easter Monday was oddly quiet. By the evening, word of fighting in distant Dublin had begun to circulate, galvanising some of the Kerry Volunteers into mobilising that night, at the Rink again. Even then, caution ruled and most of the attendees were dismissed, with only twenty remaining to guard the hall for the night and to receive the scouts who were bringing messengers from the other units around Kerry.
With no one aware of the situation or sufficiently placed, after the loss of Stack and Cotton, to know what to do, all the men could do was wait…and wait.
“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed off quietly,” remembered Peter Browne. “The Rink was full of Volunteers at all times and wild rumours were afloat about Dublin and other places. On Friday there were rumours of a surrender in Dublin.”
These defeatist reports were initially dismissed but, later in the day:
They were confirmed at Volunteer headquarters on Friday night. A meeting was arranged between the local British military officers and some Tralee citizens, including the clergy, which was attended by Volunteer representatives who agreed, in order to avoid arrests, to surrender all arms and ammunition to the military on or before Saturday.
At least the Kerry Volunteers, when this requirement was announced to them on parade on Friday night, could take some measure of defiance in denying the enemy the use of their weapons as the men grabbed hammers or sledges to smash the barrels of their guns. Browne was an exception as he instead smuggled his rifle out of the Rink beneath his coat. Four years passed before he could finally put it to use, in 1920, during an attack on a RIC barracks.
‘One Great Tragedy’
But, for now, it looked as if the movement was beaten. If the Kerry Volunteers had assumed that rolling over in submission would be the end of it, they were rudely disabused the following week, when it was reported, on the 11th May:
A Tralee message says that wholesale arrests of prominent members of the Sinn Fein organisation were effected throughout Kerry on Tuesday [9th May]. In Tralee, cavalry, infantry, and police turned out and halted opposite each house where arrests were made. Excitement ran high, but there was no disturbance.
Such coordination by the RIC and British military showed that the authorities were taking no chances. When William Mullins saw a woman curse some prisoners being led away by British soldiers, he grabbed the Union Jack from her hands and tore it to pieces. He was arrested the next day, and taken to join the other detainees in Tralee Jail.
By then, Stack and Collins had already been removed from the gaol. Since his confinement there on Easter Saturday, Stack had remained out of the loop, save when two friends visited him on Monday to inform him of the cancellation order, leaving Stack to assume that that was the end of their venture.
He was still oblivious when he and Collins were ordered out of their cells on Easter Wednesday, marched to the train under heavy escort and transferred to Cork, and then Queenstown (now Cobh), before taken by steamer to Spike Island. The next three weeks were spent in the purgatory of solitary confinement, ignorant of the world beyond until, on the 13th May, the pair were transported to Dublin.
While en route, their train stopped in Cork. The previously empty carriage they were held in was soon filled with prisoners from the Cork Volunteers. From them, Stack and Collins were able to learn of how rapidly the revolution had moved in their absence:
We were told of the Rising which had taken place in Dublin, Galway and Wexford, and which lasted until the following Sunday, and of the trials and executions…The burning of the GPO and other buildings in O’Connell St., Dublin, and many other details were discussed by our companions and ourselves.
To Stack, his head spinning at these revelations, “the whole thing at the moment seemed to be one great tragedy.”
Failure and/or Success
More prisoners from Kerry and Limerick were added on board when the train paused at Mallow. Upon arrival in the capital – or what was left of it – they were marched en masse to Richmond Barracks, When locked in for the night, Stack and Collins found themselves in distinguished company, in the form of Arthur Griffith, Terence MacSwiney and Pierce McCann, and about thirty others, all crammed in a room meant for twelve, lacking blankets and with only the floorboards to sleep on.
Though conditions remained wretched and the rations no better, Stack was able to converse with MacSwiney, an old friend and the commander of the similarly ill-fated Cork attempt:
We compared notes as to the Insurrection which had taken place, and from the news which had begun to come to us from our visitors, we began to have hope that the people of the country had had the spirit of Nationality re-awakened in them.
Such revived patriotism was on full display on the 31st August 1917, fifteen months after the Rising, at Caherciveen, where five hundred Kerry Volunteers assembled to welcome Stack, now a freed man, his life sentence having been revoked as part of the general amnesty. After a parade through the streets, the Volunteers drew up before a platform in the town square, from which a number of speakers, Stack among them, spoke to mark the forming of the local Sinn Féin Club, one of many which had been springing up all over Kerry and the rest of the country. The Caherciveen one alone could boast of two hundred members inducted on its opening day.
Stack had earlier attended, on the 28th July 1917, the Listowel Feis, as part of the promotion of the Irish tongue. After a lengthy address by Count Plunkett, whose son had been among those executed after the Rising, Stack next took the stage, appearing almost bashful before the crowd.
“Women and men of North Kerry, I can’t account for the fact that I am here today,” he began:
Or that I should be welcomed by you because, personally, I know I have done nothing to merit your kind reception. The little I had got to do in the matter of 1916 was, shall I say, somewhat of a failure.
This self-deprecation was met with cries of “It was a success!” When Stack continued, stating that he was no orator, nor intended to ever become one, a voice from the crowd suggested something better – “You’re a fighter!” – to general applause from an appreciative audience.
Regardless of what others said, Stack held no illusions as to whether the Rising in Kerry had been a success. Nor was he inclined to spare himself reproach. “I tried to keep it a one-man job,” he bemoaned in private, “and it was too much.”
Stack had kept the plans so secret that his subordinates had been left floundering in his absence. His importance was singled out by County Inspector Hill, when testifying, on the 27th May 1916, to the Royal Commission, set up to investigate the disturbances of the month before:
Austin Stack was in charge of everything, and when he was arrested the Irish Volunteers who were assembled in Tralee became nervous. Those of them who were from the country districts gradually left for home.
This lack of coordination came under particular scrutiny by Sir Mackenzie Chalmers, one of the three members of the Commission, when he reviewed the checkmating of the Aud. Intercepted by British warships, the German vessel had been scuttled by its crew, who had then been taken into captivity.
Sir Mackenzie Chalmers: The German ship intended to land at Tralee?
Hill: Yes, by force.
Chalmers: There was not much preparation to receive it? Only two men in a motor car?
Hill: There was a large number in Tralee. My idea is that the ship came in a day or two too soon. She was unpunctual.
Another person of interest, Robert Monteith, was noted to be still at large.
After the countermanding order had arrived at the Rink, Monteith decided that, since there was no further use for him with no Rising, the only thing he could do was run. The RIC were still on the lookout for the third man off the submarine, after all, and a strange face like his would be easy to pick out.
As a cover for his escape, it was arranged for him to leave after dark, amidst the Ballymacelligott Company while pretending to be just another local man. True to the secrecy that had characterised, and hamstrung, the Kerry Volunteers, only the Ballymacelligott captain and two others knew of Monteith’s identity.
These pair were put on either side of him as the company marched out of the Rink. A gas lamp lit up the area outside, allowing the police posted outside a good look at the departing Volunteers but the pace of the step, coupled with a downpour, allowed Monteith to escape undetected, hidden in plain sight.
From there, Monteith fled, first to Limerick and then Liverpool, before finally reaching sanctuary in New York. He remained active in his country’s cause, via the Irish-American lobby, and later penned a memoir which captured the Rising-that-was-not in Kerry, in all its confusion.
“If there be readers who think I have been harsh, or unfair, or unduly severe,” he wrote in the preface, “I am sorry; but, I have to deal with men and hard facts.”
Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.
Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.
On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.
When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.
The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.
This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.
Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.
“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.
Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?
As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.
A Soldier’s Heart
If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.
All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:
But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.
The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.
Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.
Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.
Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.
Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.
In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”
Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:
[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.
As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.
The Scottish Connection
Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.
When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:
He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.
No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.
By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.
Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.
Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.
Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.
With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.
The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.
Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.
An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.
Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:
Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.
He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.
Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.
But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.
It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.
Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.
She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.
Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.
Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.
The Landing in Waterford
As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.
This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.
The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.
Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.
White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness was to lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.
McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.
White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.
McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.
Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.
Like Stars of Constancy
Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:
The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.
As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.
Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.
Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.
Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.
Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:
Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.
Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.
Letting the Situation Develop
Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.
Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance: a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.
Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.
As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”
He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.
Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.
The Fear of the People
Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:
I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.
To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”
Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”
The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:
The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –
“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.
“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”
Peace with Honour
It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”
For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.
Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:
Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.
As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:
…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.
And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.
It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.
Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.
A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.
Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his listeners could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”
Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.
The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.
When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.
“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”
This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.
What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.
Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.
The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.
O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:
…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.
Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.
The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.
But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.
“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”
It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.
Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.
Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.
As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.
“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”
The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.
In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.
The Straight Road to the Republic
The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:
Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.
Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.
It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.
O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.
This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.
For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.
He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price. Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.
When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.
In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.
Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?
Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.
“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”
But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.
“Then there must be a civil war.”
“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”
They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.
A Lot of Sick People
Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”
As Lawless recalled:
I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.
Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:
I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.
Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.
Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?
Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:
A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”
The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.
Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.
A Last Meeting
Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.
After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.
“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”
“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”
“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”
If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”
To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.
When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.
That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.
 Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3
 ‘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’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp.227-31
McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Bureau of Military History Statements
Daly, Una, WS 610
Dore, Eamon T., WS 515
Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043
Moylan, Seán, WS 838
Noyk, Michael, WS 707
Reader, Seamus, WS 933
White, Vincent, WS 1764
Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624
‘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’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html
Safe in New York, if unsettled, Patrick Callanan pined for his friend and former commanding officer, Liam Mellows. Other Irishmen had joined him in the United States, also fleeing in the wake of the failed Easter Rising, but Mellows was not amongst them.
Callanan had discussed him with John Devoy when he visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper – of which Devoy was editor – after coming to New York in November 1916. Callanan reassured Devoy, a Fenian old-timer and one of the most powerful men in the Irish-American community, that Mellows was on his way. And yet, with no further word, Callanan could not help but worry.
His own journey had been an arduous one. After the disbandment of the Galway Volunteers at Limepark House on Mellows’ reluctant orders, Callanan was among those forced to go on the run. He first hid out with his cousins in Co. Galway, before moving to Co. Clare and then Waterford town, from where he took a boat to Liverpool, and then another to Philadelphia.
The Atlantic crossing took nineteen days, at risk all the while from German submarines. When nearing the mouth of the Delaware River, the crew was told to extinguish all lights lest they betray their position to any lurking U-boats. After disembarking safely, Callanan pushed on to New York, where Devoy and the Irish-American organisation he headed, Clan na Gael, welcomed him with open arms as a fellow revolutionary.
Provided with some money by Devoy for living expenses. Callanan could at least take a well-earned. But waiting idly did not suit him, nor did it for many of his compatriots in the city, and the initiative was made – without consulting Devoy – to contact the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.
Following some consultation with Berlin, Bernstorff was able to report back the willingness of his government to land arms and soldiers on the west coast of Ireland. Considering the lacklustre support Germany had granted to the previous uprising earlier in the year, this was a questionable claim, but Callanan took it at face value.
Callanan was abed one night in December 1916 when he was woken by someone pulling at him. To his surprise and joy, it was none other than Mellows. The two comrades-in-arms had not seen each other since leaving Limepark House, eight months ago. After sleeping the rest of the morning in bed together, Callanan took him to the Gaelic American office and introduced him to Devoy, who was quite taken with the newcomer, praising him as the most capable man who had yet arrived (Callanan did not seem offended by this), and going so far as to offer him a job on his newspaper.
Devoy would not be quite so amiable when learning of the contacts made with Count von Bernstorff. The émigrés had gone behind his back, on his territory of New York no less, and Devoy was fiercely intolerant of anything that encroached on his prerogatives. His anger was a sign that life in America for the Irish exiles would not necessarily be an easy, nor a straightforward, one.
The War Continues
Callanan let Mellows in on the arrangement for Germany to supply arms and men to Ireland. Having been let down before by their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, Mellows thought it best to proceed with care by first sending a man to Germany and another two to Ireland to ensure the whole process went smoothly. Callanan went along with Mellows’ amendments to the plan without a murmur. After examining some maps together, they agreed that the Martello Tower near Kinvara, Co. Galway, would make the best landing site.
It would be but another move in the fight for Irish freedom, which had been paused but never ceased as far as Mellows was concerned. He was especially keen to correct all talk to the contrary, as Callanan described:
At this time rumours were current in America that there would be no more fighting in Ireland and that all we wanted was to be represented at the Peace Conference [when the First World War was over]. Mellows resented this very much and he stated at several meetings that Ireland would fight again, and what we wanted was arms.
Even when Callanan moved to Boston, the two men remained in contact. One Saturday – the day he usually visited New York to see Mellows – Callanan found his friend in an especially serious mood.
Mellows told him that he had been in communication with a German woman living on the West Coast. She was willing to offer a boat of hers at their disposal if a crew could be provided. For this, Mellows tasked Callanan with finding four or five others to serve as firemen and coal-passers, while he would inquire after engineers.
The plan was for Mellows to lead the others in sailing through Russian waters to Germany, taking the lengthier westwards route rather than the more direct Atlantic one to avoid the British navy. In Germany, the boat would be loaded with munitions and then landed in Ireland, as previously discussed.
Fired up, Callanan agreed to do his part and succeeded in recruiting four sailors-to-be, but when the pair met again on the following Saturday, Mellows admitted to being unable to muster enough engineers. The plan was cancelled and, while it would not be the only arms-running attempt, it was but the first of many setbacks Mellows faced in the Land of the Free.
A Great Spirit
In the meantime, there were other ways to further the cause. To his delight, Callanan found that in the States “a great spirit prevailed at this time, especially among those of Irish descent. They were all very anxious to hear about the happenings of Easter Week.”
It was a zeitgeist Clan na Gael was keen to tap into it, and Mellows spoke on behalf of the society at a series of meetings. As one of the participants in the Rising, and a leading one at that, Mellows made for an especially effective speaker, holding his audiences spellbound with his tales of the heroics from that fateful week.
His oratory, remembered one witness, Robert Briscoe, “made you see things he had experienced, and dream the same great dreams.” Though the revolution had been bloodied, Mellows assured his listeners, it had not been broken. It lived on, seething beneath the seemingly pacified surface of the country. This was music to Briscoe’s ears. The vision Mellows invoked “struck deep into my soul, bludgeoning my common sense.”
Since landing in the United States from Dublin in December 1914, Briscoe had lived the life of a Horatio Alger hero, earning his first dollar as a humble packer before partnering in a lucrative company that produced Christmas tree-lights. But the American dream proved not enough, as Briscoe found his thoughts returning to his homeland, piqued in particular by the news of Easter Week.
Hearing Mellows speak confirmed to Briscoe what he had to do. Turning his back on his thriving business, he took on the duties of shipping guns to Ireland. In time, he would become a close friend of the man who had made him a convert.
While Mellows was helping to clear the doubts of others, he was having some of his own. “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today I would never have fired a shot,” he told Frank Robbins as they were walking together in New York in mid-1917.
Like Mellows, Robbins had fought in the Rising, except in his case he had been a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), in charge of occupying the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Released from Frognoch Camp in August 1916, his defiance, like that of Mellows’, remained undimmed as he assisted in the ICA revival, or at least tried to, as it lacked the necessary funds and contacts to make much of an impact anymore.
But Robbins did not allow himself to despair. When asked by Tom Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), to head Stateside and connect with the Union’s erstwhile leader, Jim Larkin, Robbins readily accepted.
Reaching New York in late 1916, Robbins made the acquaintance of many in the radical Irish-American scene, including Devoy and Mellows, the latter he came in contact with through a mutual friend, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Week martyr, James Connolly. Both Robbins and Mellows had been close to her father, but they had not met until Nora passed on Mellows’ address at 73 West 96th Street, where he was staying with the Kirwan family.
Robbins was thrilled to meet a man who had been so influential in revolutionary circles back in Ireland, and who continued being so in New York, recognised by all, according to Robbins, as the de facto leader of the ‘1916 exiles’. The appreciation was reciprocated, with Mellows giving Robbins a copy he had signed of John Mitchel’s classic Jail Journal.
Doubts and Uncertainties
And so it was with some surprise that Robbins heard Mellows express such bitter incertitude. Only the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had the authority to declare an uprising, Mellows said, and that had been appropriated. To Robbins’ astonishment, Mellows castigated those responsible as a junta which had ignored everyone else in its pursuit of its own intrigues.
Robbins thought this change of heart was due to what certain other Irish émigrés had been saying, but Mellows adamantly denied this to be the case. Robbins then methodically dissected Mellows’ volte-face.
He had been singing the praises of the Rising, while eulogising James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse and all the others who had laid down their lives to rejuvenate Ireland’s soul, bringing the cause of national freedom to the world stage, and saving its manhood from British servitude. With all that said, if Mellows now believed the opposite, he should go back before the people of America and tell them so.
“But before you do that, I would ask you to examine the whole matter thoroughly,” Robbins continued. For if Mellows was still uncertain, he would have to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and whose efforts, Mellows had to agree, were now bearing the fruits the two of them were looking forward to gathering.
“Thanks, Frank,” Mellows replied, “I never looked at it that way. You have eased my mind considerably. I was very worried about the whole matter.”
Another disagreement was when Mellows posed the question as to what form of government a free Ireland should take. As Robbins was a staunch republican, and knew Mellows to be the same, he assumed his friend was jesting in his contention that the people should be free to choose, whether it be a republic or monarchy, but the conversation grew heated as Mellows refused to back down.
“He continued to uphold the view that it was for the people to decide,” Robbins wrote years later, still in shocked wonder. He assumed that Mellows “had not expected opposition from me but having taken the stand he would not retreat. So the talk ended in disagreement,” and not for the last time.
By a quirk of fate, Mellows would end up opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an unacceptable compromise, while Robbins, who had denounced anything short of a Republic, accepted the agreement for something that fell short of that ideal. But such contradictions and tragedies were to be for the future.
The Search for Guns
Mellows came to trust Robbins enough to bring him in on his latest German gun-running mission. The version he had arranged with Callanan had been elaborated into three separate landings in Co. Wexford, Down and Clare. In preparation for this, Mellows was to work on a fruit-boat from New York to Montevideo, and from there take another to Spain, where a submarine would pick him up for the final leg of the journey to Germany. Thinking he was looking for assistance, Robbins volunteered his services, but Mellows at first demurred.
‘Our friends down town’, by which Mellows meant Clan na Gael, had ruled this to be a one-man job. Robbins was a little mystified at this, and wondered if Mellows had simply failed to be assertive: “It was not for me to make a comment but I thought that had Mellows pressed the need for a second it would have been conceded.”
Regardless, it was agreed between the pair that Robbins would play a part after all, by searching around the docks for some helping hands. He believed he was aiding his friend by covering for his personal deficiencies:
He was not very conversant with dockside life…In many ways I found him to be a bit of an introvert which made it very difficult for him to mix with the many different kinds of men one meets in sailors’ haunts.
(Which – considering Mellows’ past success with making friends in Fianna Éireann and the IRB, and then the Irish Volunteers, to say nothing of his exploits in escaping from England in time for the Rising, and the subsequent flight to America, the latter which saw him surviving the toils of working life on board a ship – seems an unfair statement on Robbins’ part.)
One point of contention was Mellows’ insistence on total secrecy, which was all well and good – until he cited Jim Larkin in particular as someone to keep in the dark. Offended, Robbins asked if this was due to Larkin being a socialist because, if so, Mellows could rule him out as well for he too was one.
A distraught Mellows insisted this was not so, arguing that while he knew naught about socialism, he also had nothing against it, having read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and finding it much to his liking. When Robbins pressed for a reason, Mellows refused to say, only that he would divulge at a later time – which he never did.
With this disagreement pushed to the side, the two men got down to business. Robbins was to remain in New York until he received word that Mellows was en route to Spain, at which point he would return to Ireland and alert their fellow revolutionaries to the incoming weapons.
“However, the arms plan never came to anything,” Robbins admitted.
Robbins later found a reason for Larkin being persona non grata to Clan na Gael: the temperamental ‘Lion of Labour’ had delivered a tongue-lashing to Devoy in the Gaelic American office, accusing him of snobbery in favouring the Irish Volunteers with money while ignoring the more working-class ICA members in America. Larkin may have ruled the ITGWU with an iron fist, but he was not in Ireland anymore and, in Devoy, he met his match as an autocrat.
Not that Robbins spared the curmudgeon much sympathy. Although he had been sent to contact Larkin, Robbins was soon disgusted with his bilious rants and found himself much preferring the company of Devoy. He was amazed at the older man’s intelligence and how “he could foresee developments well in advance of most writers.” Devoy’s austere dedication also impressed Robbins. Instead of the money and fame that Robbins believed Devoy could have earned, he:
…preferred to travel a lonely, torturous and unpopular path for the meagre salary of twenty-five dollars per week, which he regarded as being sufficient to take care of his very simple way of life. His only regard was the advancement and, if possible, the achievement of the freedom of Ireland, and be counted as one who had given service to that cause throughout his whole life.
Robbins was a witness to the extent of Devoy’s influence at a packed Clan na Gael convention in the Central Opera House. After a succession of stirring speeches about the historical fight for Irish freedom had put the audience in the appropriate mood, Devoy implored them for funds with which to carry on that same mission.
This prompted a number of delegates to leap to their feet and compete for the stage to proudly announce the amounts they personally, and the Clan clubs they represented, would be donating.
“They were almost shouting each other down in their anxiety to be heard,” wrote Robbins, awed by the memory.
Others were less impressed by the grizzled Fenian. Sidney Czira (née Gifford, sister-in-law to Joseph Plunkett) complained that Devoy tried to separate the ‘1916 exiles’ into different states. The purported reason was to lessen the risk of police surveillance, which Czira conceded was a concern. But she attributed this policy of Devoy’s less to safety and more to his suspicions.
“He had this extraordinary obsession that there was somebody always interfering or intriguing against him,” she wrote with a sigh.
But, of course, even paranoiacs have enemies. One of whom in Devoy’s case would just happen to be Czira.
About March or April 1917, Robbins received a written invitation to Czira’s apartment in Amsterdam Avenue. When he arrived, he found Mellows and other ‘1916 exiles’ also there. Czira explained the purpose of the meeting: she wanted to replace Clan na Gael, whose leadership she believed was out of touch with the struggle back in Ireland, with a new fraternity, the nucleus of which would be the ‘1916 exiles’.
After some discussion, the guests made their way out. Mellows asked Robbins what he thought. Robbins was blunt: what was the point of undermining their number one patron in a country they knew little about? The only thing this could accomplish was the hurting of their own cause.
Mellows agreed – at least, on the surface. Robbins thought that was the end of the matter – until a new organisation did indeed come into being, the Irish Progressive League.
At its forefront was Czira, who threw herself into the fray of activism, as she described:
We set up a shop, the front part of which was devoted to Irish books, pamphlets, periodicals, postcards, badges and the usual propaganda material. This must have been 1918 because we had in the window a map which we used in the way that war maps were used at this time, by sticking pins with little flags to indicate the constituencies in which Sinn Féin were victorious in the election.
As if this was not enough, Mellows set up a society of his own sometime later, the Irish Citizen’s Association, intended for use as a pressure group on Clan na Gael. Such behaviour would forever be a puzzle to Robbins: “In later years I often asked myself if Liam Mellows was partial to the first project and founder of another. Or was he under the influence of someone else?”
It was inexplicable to Robbins that his friend could act this way after they had agreed on the foolishness of such maverick ventures. Perhaps the answer, Robbins speculated gloomily, lay within their national psyche: “Sometimes I think the Irish have an inbuilt genius for disagreement and disunity.”
Clan na Gael
If the Rising of 1916 had ‘changed, changed utterly’ Ireland, in the words of W.B. Yeats, then the entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 – on the side of Britain, no less – had a similar effect on Irish-America. Outspokenly pro-German before, Clan na Gael was forced to ask itself if keeping to its stance was worth the hostility from the rest of the country, now on the lookout for unpatriotic malcontents within. The answer, as far as Devoy and the rest of the Clan old-guard were concerned, was ‘no’.
Others like Mellows vehemently disagreed. To those who had risked life and liberty in Dublin’s streets or the fields of Galway during Easter Week, suggestions that they now enrol in the American army and fight alongside the same enemy as before were intolerable.
This clash between pragmatism and principles – not the last in Mellows’ life – soon boiled over into public view, such as when a Clan convention on Easter 1917, for the first anniversary of the Rising, was disrupted by audience members loudly objecting when the platform speakers urged them to enlist. So stormy was the mood that hall stewards ordered the protestors to remove their tricolour badges, which was refused.
Though Czira was not present, being at home with her two-month old baby, she heard much about it when many who were disgruntled at the stance the Clan was taking visited her apartment to discuss what should be done. Of particular concern was the agreement between the American and British authorities that the former could conscript British nationals, among which the Irish who were not American citizens had been classified.
In a series of open-air meetings protesting against enlistment, Mellows took the lead, mixing impassioned oratory with cutting humour. With reference to the poster ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ that was plastered about the city, Mellows suggested that an answer should be: “I was tracking around New York the Irish who were trying to obtain their liberty.”
Displeased at this unseemly independence, the Clan na Gael Executive gave Mellows a stark choice: speak no more at such meetings or forget about his Gaelic American job. The man who had disbanded the Galway Volunteers in the face of a hopeless situation only with great reluctance was not going to back down now, and the Clan soon learnt about the sort of enemy its former golden boy could be.
When the first day of a Clan gathering in New York in 1918 passed without any speakers making reference to the ‘German Plot’ – over which a number of arrests had been made in Ireland on allegations of German collusion – there was considerable outrage in the hall. That none of the ‘1916 exiles’ were among those on stage was another cause for resentment.
The second day of the convention came and still not a word was said about the arrests, leading to shouts for Mellows, who was on the premises, to be allowed to speak. Taken to a backroom, Mellows – as he told Czira afterwards – was accused by the Clan bigwigs of being behind the upheaval, which he denied.
As a small compromise, and in the hope of diffusing the tension, Mellows would be allowed on the platform to bow before the audience, but on no condition was he to speak. Of course, as soon as he was on stage, he denounced the arrests and, for added effect, proposed a resolution of protest.
“American papers on the following day commented that although the proceedings were very dull on the first day, they were certainly very lively on the second,” Czira commented dryly.
At least relations between Mellows and Devoy remained cordial, if lacking the same warmth as before. “I fear for the Irish movement in America when the Old Man dies,” Mellows told Robbins in the belief that there was no one who could fill Devoy’s shoes. It was a sentiment he would repeat on numerous occasions, according to Robbins.
Similarly, Devoy continued to hold Mellows in high regard, however personally he took their widening estrangement. A rumour that he had financially neglected Mellows to the point of starvation wounded him, as did the other man’s silence on the issue, which was taken by many to mean an affirmation.
“You know how much I loved Mellows,” he said to Robbins, who had managed to stay on good terms with both. “I loved him as if he had been my own son.”
He said this in the Shelbourne Hotel during his visit to Dublin in 1924. Mellows had been dead for almost two years, put before a firing-squad of his fellow countrymen, but the memory of his failure – or refusal – to dispel the whispers of ill-treatment lingered on as a knife in the old man’s gut.
Mellows caught something of the complexity of their relationship in a letter to Nora Connolly, dated to September 1919:
I broke completely with the Gang. Lots of things happened – more than I can write about and more than was known even among friends. Threatened with expulsion from everything. Told them to do it. They backed down. Resigned from the office at the same time. Was begged to remain by Uncle. Did so.
That Devoy was ‘Uncle’ was telling in the familial choice of word. Despite Mellows agreeing to remain with the Gaelic American, he complained of a “campaign of the most vile and conscious slander” against him.
This toing-and-froing, akin to a fraying marriage, could not last indefinitely. Mellows had been staying in the apartment of Patrick Kirwan, the brother of a leading Irish Volunteer in Wexford, where Mellows’ mother hailed from. Upon his first meeting with Mellows, Kirwan was delighted to learn that they knew many of the same people from Wexford.
The Kirwan home of 73 West 96th Street became a centre for him and his friends. The Kirwans did not seem to mind the constant flow of guests, taking care to make each of them welcome, and Mellows was close enough to the family to stand as godfather to their third son.
After two years of this cosy arrangement, Mellows abruptly left in mid-1919 without warning. The Kirwans found that he had been moving his books out in batches without telling them until the last day. It was only later that they learnt he had relocated to Manhattan’s East Side, the Carmelite School on East 28th Street, where he was employed as an Irish language teacher, having abandoned the Gaelic American for good.
The head of the monastery, Father Peter Magennis, had long been a source of aid for the ‘1916 exiles’. When Czira found it impossible to send letters back home due to the strict censorship, Magennis delivered her correspondence, and that of many others, while he was over in Ireland.
After Mellows collapsed at his first replacement job as a labourer, it was Magennis who had given him the teaching post, a role more suited to his education. His health, until then in a perilous state, began to mend.
Mellows was, according to Robbins, “subject to spells of despondency and was inclined to neglect himself.” When two female friends learnt of his plight, they visited him in the East Side and succeeded in nursing him back to health. It was for this bleak period that Devoy was blamed for starving him. It was an unjust accusation to Robbins’s mind, and Mellows seemed to allude to this misconception in a story he told Czira.
When he was young and sick in bed, he had overheard the doctor attribute his state to malnutrition. Thinking someone was blaming his mother for not feeding him properly, an enraged Mellows tried to rise out of bed and attack the doctor. Still, as Devoy bemoaned to Robbins, Mellows made no effort to correct the impression.
Mellows was still on amiable terms with Devoy when, in mid-1917, Dr Patrick McCartan came to New York and – in keeping with the new tradition for Irish revolutionaries on arrival – visited the Gaelic American offices. Robbins were there with Devoy when Mellows introduced him to the newcomer.
Much like Mellows and Robbins, the thirty-eight year old McCartan had already had a colourful career as an Irish freedom fighter. He had spent time before in America, working as a barman in Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph McGarrity, the leading Clan official in the city.
By 1905, McCartan had returned to Ireland, buoyed by a loan from McGarrity to pursue a medical career, and also to encourage a growth of radical politics in his native Tyrone, a task he fulfilled with enough vigour to be ‘honoured’ in a police report with the accolade of being “the most dangerous man in the county.”
But he was evidently not dangerous enough for some. Despite joining the IRB Supreme Council in July 1915, McCartan was among those side-lined in the planning of the Easter Rising. When the big event came, McCartan was as lost as anyone, and ended Tyrone’s involvement by sending its Volunteers home unbloodied.
After disappearing from the county for some months, McCartan re-emerged in Tyrone at the end of 1916 and was arrested in February 1917, being deported to England along with a number of others. Three months later, he came back to Ireland in time to campaign for Sinn Féin in the South Longford by-election.
“Nothing further was known of his movements until it was announced that he had arrived in America, where he had succeeded in reaching by working his passage as an ordinary seaman,” reported the Irish Times.
Before McCartan had left Ireland, it was decided by the IRB leadership that he would join Mellows on his much-anticipated mission to Germany. Mellows was to handle the purchase of arms while McCartan tended to the political aspect. The duo were allocated some leeway in their plans, depending on circumstances, as McCartan put it:
Mellows and I were left free to do what we thought best on reaching Germany but one or both of us was to accompany the war material, to the arranged spot, on a fixed date. If we could get more than one consignment, either of us was to remain behind to escort the second cargo. Mellows and I were delighted with this plan, for which the Clan undertook to make the arrangements.
There was just one snag: McCartan was an idiot.
Lost and Found
While he talked with the other three in the Gaelic American offices, the subject arose of a certain document that McCartan had left behind on the ship that had brought him over three days earlier. It was a linen document, making a case for Irish independence, addressed to the US President and to Congress, and bearing the signatures of twenty-six individuals from the 1916 Rising. The linen had been specially prepared and starched so that the words could be written in indelible ink, before washed back into a pliable state and then sewn into the lining of McCartan’s waistcoat.
It seemed the perfect cover – until McCartan feared he would be searched on entry to New York. So he left the document on board.
Quite what he had intended to do then was unclear, as was the importance of the document, for during the conversation with the other three, McCartan could not make up his mind on whether it was worth retrieving. Exasperated, Robbins:
…drew Mellows aside and asked him to find out from the doctor if, in fact, the document was important. If it was I undertook to try and obtain it from aboad ship.
When Mellows asked how he intended to do this, Robbins said he would bluff his way through by pretending to be looking for a job. McCartan looked relieved at this plan of action, and so he, Mellows and Robbins left Devoy and went to the West Side where the ships were berthed. Deciding that fortune favours the bold, Robbins pressed ahead:
At the entrance to the docks I walked very smartly in without taking any notice of the guard. As I walked on I heard a voice shout “Halt” but paid no attention. Next there was a rush of feet, a few swear words and I was asked did I want a so-and-so bayonet into me.
Robbins did not. All wide-eyed innocence, he turned to the furious guard, who demanded to see his pass. Robbins tried feigning ignorance as to why a humble job-seeker like him would need such a thing, but when that made no headway with the other man, he spun a sympathy story about how he had missed his ship out due to drink and was in desperate need of another job.
Moved by this tale of woe, but not enough to give way, the watchman asked Robbins if he knew the bosun and, if so, whether he could vouch for him. Robbins confidently said he did but, when the guard left to find the bosun, he knew that the jig was up and retreated to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.
That was not the end of the missing document, for it finally appeared in the possession of Joseph McGarrity. McCartan had visited his old friend in Philadelphia immediately after landing in New York, during which he might have handed the document to him. If so, that was a severe breach of protocol, given that Devoy was the point-man in America for the IRB.
Still, Robbins was not entirely convinced by this explanation:
Having been present at the discussions…with Devoy, Mellows and himself, I formed the opinion that McCartan was genuinely concerned about leaving the document on the ship, and that it was afterwards rescued by contacts made by Devoy.
Another version of how Devoy retrieved the item was by demanding it in person from McGarrity, who instantly surrendered it. When Clan na Gael ruptured into hostile factions, McGaritty and McCartan would side with the anti-Devoy camp, suggesting that it was not coincidental that McCartan gave the presidential letter to McGarrity over Devoy. If so, then Devoy was being far from unreasonable in seeing plots against his authority.
As for the declaration, it was eventually given to President Wilson, though not on the original linen.
“Frank, McCartan would never make a good revolutionary and do you know why?” Devoy asked Robbins one day in the office. When his companion replied he did not, Devoy explained: “Because he can never make up his mind and I attribute that weakness to the fact that he smokes too many cigarettes.”
Robbins took a similarly dim view of the newcomer, albeit for reasons other than a penchant for tobacco, believing him to be a bad influence on Mellows. When Mellows shocked Robbins by questioning the rightness of the Easter Rising, and his accusations that the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Robbins heard the echo of McCartan’s words in Mellows’, and blamed the Tyrone native for filling his friend’s head with such doubts.
In time, Mellows would be similarly unimpressed with McCartan and his unreliability. McCartan “was the only man I could say that Mellows was even bitter against,” recalled Peadar O’Donnell.
For the moment, however, Mellows and McCartan worked closely together, with both becoming regular visitors to Czira’s apartment at Beekman Place. When she happened to mention that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had told her that she had seen off some members of the German embassy, whose time in America were over due to the wartime severance of diplomatic relations, McCartan was surprised. He had been told by Devoy that there were no ships leaving the States.
The next morning, McCartan returned with Mellows in tow. Mellows asked Czira if her German friend knew whether it would be possible for them to take the same route out. That Mellows had come at an unusually early hour indicates how excited – and impatient – he was.
(Mellows kept a loose schedule in general, to the point of being a night-owl. He would think nothing of dropping by Beekman Place, regardless of the hour. Czira remembered how on one occasion Mellows was leaving in the morning and bade the milkman ‘Goodnight’.)
When Czira returned with Haslau’s answer in the affirmative, Mellows and McCartan asked to be put in touch with her, which Czira did. She urged them not to tell any of the Clan elders like Devoy, but McCartan replied it would not be fair to keep the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.
She also questioned the involvement of a Dr von Recklinghausen, a friend of Haslau’s, who handled German propaganda in the States. Czira urged Mellows against bringing him to their gatherings at her apartment, fearing the German was too obvious a target for police surveillance, but he assured her he would be careful not to be seen in von Recklinghausen’s company. She was further alarmed when Mellows took to meeting von Recklinghausen in Haslau’s flat at the other end of the terrace from hers.
For once, she and Devoy were in complete agreement. He warned McCartan that Haslau’s house was under constant watch by the authorities, but the conspirators continued to meet there regardless. Given that Devoy had already been proved wrong about the lack of ships leaving America, there seemed little reason to heed his caution.
Setting in Motion
When Callanan answered Mellows’ summons to see him in New York after Sunday Mass, he found him with several others, including Robbins. Mellows, he noted, appeared distraught. When asked the reason, Mellows, pent-up for too long, laid his cards on the table.
Clan na Gael could no longer be relied on, he said, with the exception of a few allies such as McGarrity in Philadelphia. With no further hope of smuggling arms from America, they were wasting their time here. The only thing left to do was for them to go back to Ireland, while Mellows intended to reach Germany to find aid there.
Callanan and another man present, Donal O’Hannigan, agreed to return home as soon as possible. Meeting Callanan later in the week, Mellows told him that he had a good chance of making it to Germany via a Belgian relief ship that was waiting by the docks. From Belgium, Mellows explained, he could go to Holland and then onwards to his destination.
Mellows explained this plan to Devoy, with McCartan and O’Hannigan present, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That he did so showed that relations between him and Devoy had not yet completely broken down. Indeed, the old Fenian had been busy on Mellows’ behalf, cabling Germany to obtain the password – the not overly imaginative ‘Berlin’ – the others were to use when communicating with German intelligence. When Mellows, McCartan and O’Hannigan were leaving the hotel together, they noticed four men shadowing them, whom they assumed were police agents.
O’Hannigan and Callanan were able to obtain their seamen’s papers without much fuss. The same could not be said for Mellows and McCartan, thanks to the latter’s chronic incompetence.
When the pair went to the Shipping Board, as Mellows related to Robbins, they were questioned about the previous vessels on which they had worked. Which was only to be expected, this being standard practice, but McCartan managed to give the wrong name of his supposed last ship, answering instead with what his seaman’s book said was his second last. He also guessed incorrectly when asked if he had worked as a seaman or a fireman.
The official excused himself for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he stamped their books as being in order. All seemed as it should – except that from then on, Mellows was to complain about a feeling of being constantly monitored. His watchers were less than subtle, such as when the letter box for the Kirwans’ flat – where Mellows was then still living – was broken apart and the opened letters discarded in the hallway, or the stove added to the street corner across from the Kirwans’ apartment to keep the policemen waiting there warm at night.
Czira was surprised when Mellows failed to arrive one evening as he usually did. The next day, with rumours swirling of Mellows’ arrest, she was visited by another of the exiles, a Tipperary man called Michael O’Callaghan. Usually so cheerful, O’Callaghan merely sat there in gloomy silence.
Knowing his volatile reputation – O’Callaghan had fled Ireland after shooting two policeman dead – Czira was afraid to ask anything about Mellows. When O’Callaghan finally left for the night, it was much to her relief. He was arrested almost immediately after, as Czira heard:
He was followed by an American detective and was growing more and more irritated as he walked through the streets, wondering over the fate of Mellows, he suddenly saw in front of him in a shop window a large picture of John Mitchel, grandson of the patriot, who was then running for Mayor of New York and who was an out and out Britisher. (I think there was some pro-British sentiment on the poster.)
This was the last straw as far as O’Callaghan was concerned, and he went up and smashed the window. He was promptly arrested.
When Czira went to Haslau’s flat, she was told by her German friend that she had heard nothing about von Recklinghausen since he and Mellows departed from her house together in the early hours. Haslau then telephoned von Recklinghausen’s apartment, only to be curtly informed by the landlady that not only was he not there, he was not expected back anytime soon.
For he and Mellows had been detained together after leaving Haslau. McCartan was picked up later by the Canadian authorities in Halifax where he was waiting for his outbound ship to be repaired.
While visiting Mellows in Tombs Prison, Robbins was shocked at the noise and confusion. He was led by a warden along a line of half-open cages, to the one where Mellows was waiting with something urgent to say. At first they tried talking in Irish but the din, combined with Robbins’ imperfect grasp of the language, meant that the two men had to switch to English. Even then, the pair had to shout at each other over the babel of voices to understand the little they could.
Robbins left Tombs rather shaken: “It certainly was an experience never to be forgotten.”
Beforehand, while on his way to the prison, Robbins had broken the news of the arrests to Mellows’ friends, such as Nora Connolly, as well as stopping by the Gaelic American offices. Devoy was out of town, so Robbins left a message for him. He did not think anything in particular of Devoy’s absence.
Connolly and another friend, Margaret Skinner, saw Mellows in Tombs later that day and, being more fluent in Irish than Robbins, they were able to discern what Mellows wanted them to know. They then went to the Kirwan house and found behind a picture in the dining-room some papers that the detectives had missed in their search.
‘A Sinn Fein Rebellion’
Nonetheless, the authorities were able to secure a significant cache of paperwork, according to the Irish Times:
A considerable amount of literature and papers, interesting to the American Government, were taken in the raid on Mellowes’s [alternative spelling] and Von Recklinghausen’s premises, but it will be some time before the ramifications of the plot can be thoroughly exposed.
Nonetheless, it was speculated by the New York Times “that the arrests of Mellows and Von Recklinghausen have frustrated a Sinn Fein rebellion, which was planned for next Easter, on the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion.” Whether or not Mellows and his colleagues had had anything quite as ambitious as that in mind is debatable, though the possibility must have been a tempting one.
Also noted was how:
Recklinghausen had been mentioned as an envoy whom Count Bernstorff left here. He is also associated with a group of Turks.
Which made sense, given how Turkey was allied to Germany. According to Czira, however, this supposed Turkish connection came due to a misunderstanding, as a vice-consul for Turkey was living in the flat above her. This entirely innocent diplomat “had made a very bad calculation when he moved into Beehan Place, thinking this was a nice quiet spot!”
Czira, meanwhile, was doing her best, along with Connolly, to help their imprisoned friend. Connolly approached some of the leading Clan na Gael members for help with the bail money, only to be refused. When the two women tried Barney Murphy, the owner of a successful saloon, he listened sympathetically. He was willing to help, he said to them, though he would first have to discuss it with others.
After a couple of days we read in the New York papers that at last somebody put up bail and there was a slightly sarcastic reference to the delay and the unknown person who had come forward.
Murphy, the ‘unknown person’ in question, later told Czira that when he had talked with Judge Daniel Cohalan, a prominent Irish-American politician who was close to Devoy, Cohalan warned him not to get mixed up in ‘this German plot’. Nonetheless, Murphy went ahead and put up the bail money for both Mellows and McCartan, taking care to keep his involvement a secret.
‘Hard, Wretched Days’
Mellows’ case lingered on in legal limbo. Every time he appeared in court, his bail was continued and the case adjourned. With no end in sight by early 1918, Robbins theorised to him that proceedings were being deliberately prolonged by the American Government until the end of the European War, so that it would avoid having to either imprison or deport him, and risk angering its Irish citizens.
The strain wore on his nerves. America was becoming for him a “mild form of purgatory,” he confessed to a friend in August 1918. The plight of Catherine Davis, “a poor Galway woman”, could easily apply to him. He had met her in a New York hospital at her request. Suffering from a heart ailment, she was desperate to hear about her homeland, and her one desire, as Mellows recounted in a letter in January 1919, was to die there. “Her delight was obvious when I answered her salutation in Irish and told her I knew her birthplace well.”
Sometime later, when hearing that Davis was on her deathbed:
[I] called at the hospital…Poor soul! Her one earthly wish will never be gratified. Her days, nay, her very hours are numbered. She didn’t recognise me at first, and then, when she did, was unable to speak: [she] simply held my two hands and repeated time after time, “don’t go.” I stayed with her for about an hour and had to tear myself away. She will never see Ireland again and her heart is broken.
It was a miserable tale that countless immigrants, himself included, could relate to all too well: “To eat their hearts out in exile and to die in the land of the stranger with their thoughts on the land of their love.”
The emotional scars were to stay with him. Even after years had passed, with much that had happened, as Mellows and his companions in the Four Courts awaited the assault by their erstwhile comrades, “he spoke of hard, wretched days in the United States,” wrote Ernie O’Malley.
Mellows would stay Stateside until returning to Ireland in mid-1920 to take up his role in the war against Britain. In the meantime, he remained a fixture on the Irish-American scene, however little he liked it. New York had become a “maelstrom of bitterness and perversity,” where “prejudice is rampant – fierce – unbelievable.”
Still, despite his woes, Mellows never entirely lost his impish sense of humour. Michael Collins would tell a story, one which tickled him considerably, of a performance Mellows delivered during Éamon de Valera’s visit to the United States in 1919. At a large fund-raiser, after some words from de Valera, Devoy, McCartan and Harry Boland, Mellows gave a parody of the speakers before him.
“We collected five hundred thousand pounds for the loan in Dublin. We did. Be Jaysus, we did,” Mellows said in imitation of Boland. He then had to escape the enraged others through a fire escape.
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 46-7
Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)
McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932)
Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Roger Casement was a sick man. Amidst all the uncertainties facing the tiny band of Irish revolutionaries on board the cramped German U-boat, that much was all too clear. Fearful that his companion might collapse under the twin strains of ill health and worry, Robert Monteith suggested that he catch some sleep. Casement tried to but, after half an hour, he was back to fretting.
At the mouth of the Shannon, they had looked out from the conning tower, straining their eyes in the gloom for signs of the Aud, the ship due to deliver the much-needed weapons for the planned uprising. Despite an earlier sighting of the Aud – or what they thought it was – they found nothing. After cruising for an hour and a half, the captain announced they could wait no longer, and directed his submarine towards Tralee Bay.
Before disembarking on the Kerry coast, Monteith took out their firearms and asked his companion: “Do you understand the loading of these Mauser pistols?”
“No, I have never loaded one,” Casement replied. “I have never killed anything in my life.”
“Well, Sir Roger, you may have to start very soon,” Monteith said. “It is quite possible that we may either kill or be killed.”
Monteith tried to teach Casement the basics of handling their pistols, but the other man decided that such skills were not for him and handed the weapons back with a shake of his head.
At least Casement had retained some sense of the occasion. As Monteith bemoaned the incongruity of trying to liberate their country under such woebegotten circumstances, Casement hushed him.
“It will be a much greater adventure going ashore in this cockle shell,” he said, in reference to the small boat they were lowering themselves into.
For Monteith, it was but the latest adventure in what had already been an eventful life. Born in 1878 in Co. Wicklow, he had enrolled in the British Army and was posted to India, during which he was shot in the mouth, dislocated his hip when a horse threw him, and learned to speak a local dialect. Later he volunteered to serve in South Africa, where the ‘scorched earth’ policy he helped inflict during the Boer War gave him a different perspective on the cause he was serving:
In the smoke and red flames of the first Boar [sic] farmhouse I saw burned, there appeared to me the grisly head and naked ribs of the imperialist monster. I realised why the women and children knelt in the shower of sparks to curse us.
Still, in a way, Monteith thought the Indians and the Boers had it easy compared to the people of his own homeland:
I have been in the villages of Bengal and the Punjab in India, and in the kraals of the so-called savages of Africa, with whom it is a crime to beat a child; I have eaten with the Zulu, Basuto, Swazi and the Matabele, and can say without fear of contradiction that the conditions under which these ‘benighted heathens’ live are far above those of the Christian workers of Dublin.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that after all this, not to mention a bout of malaria, a photograph of a uniformed Monteith (below), as he neared his Army discharge after eight years of service, shows a thin, serious-looking man, still only twenty-five.
Back in Ireland, where he owned a small Dublin-based printing press, Monteith’s feelings of discontent crystallised into open outrage upon seeing the beating to death of a man by police (and his own battering when he intervened) during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, as well as the clubbing of his stepdaughter.
Monteith decided to enlist in the Irish Citizen Army but was persuaded by Tom Clarke, an acquaintance of his, to instead channel his military know-how into the nascent Irish Volunteers. Sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by Clarke, Monteith was sufficiently trusted to be offered the chance to assist Casement in Germany, where he was attempting to form an ‘Irish Brigade’ from the inmates of POW camps there.
Monteith agreed and met Casement in Munich, October 1915. Casement made an instant impression on Monteith, who was to wax lyrically about his new colleague: “I have known no eyes more beautiful than Casement’s…Blazing when he spoke of man’s inhumanity to man; soft and wistful when pleading the cause so dear to his heart; mournful when telling the story of Ireland’s century old martyrdom.”
Casement’s story was almost as much Monteith’s as well, so entwined were their lives at this point. Not for nothing was Monteith’s memoir – quoted liberally by Smyth in her book – entitled Casement’s Last Adventure.
The reality of the situation, however, proved to be…challenging. Even then, Casement was visibly ill and nervous. As for the Irish POWs, they were not always a receptive audience. A not-untypical entry in Monteith’s diary read:
3 November 1915: Commenced recruiting campaign at 9 a.m. and continue till noon. Started at 2 p.m. and worked till 5 p.m. These hours were chosen so as not to interfere with meal hours of men. Men seem indifferent. A lot of them are absolutely impossible.
Much to Montheith’s bewilderment, the prisoners seemed too content with their situation for anything as bothersome as reenlistment. “All of them are loud in their statement that when the war is over they will be prepared to fight for Ireland. God help us!” Monteith wrote, and more in a similar vein.
At least a proposal by the IRB Military Council to have a boat loaded with armaments sent to Ireland gave Casement a new lease of life. As Monteith remembered: “He was so happy at the news I brought, that he immediately slipped out of bed, and started to work on plans or suggestions, to help the German General Staff and Admiralty, on the work in hand.”
As it turned out, neither the German Command nor the IRB had much further use or interest in him. When Casement, realising this harsh truth, insisted on going on board the same ship, Monteith tried vainly to talk him out of it. Their German point-men, in contrast, made no such effort. At least Casement and Monteith still had each other, the latter loyally refusing to allow the other to risk himself alone.
Smyth’s book reads like a novel, fast-paced and by turns exciting and depressing. Poor Casement! Monteith at least managed to avoid capture in Kerry. He left Casement, too sickly to carry on, in an ancient ring-fort that would provide some shelter. By the time Monteith reached Tralee and alerted the local Irish Volunteers, Casement had already been found and arrested by a police patrol.
Hiding out in Tralee, Monteith could still hope that the Aud would finally arrive with its catchment, but even that was not to be. With orders, countermanding orders and general confusion marking the Rising-that-was-not-to-be in Kerry, Monteith wisely turned down the offer to command the Irish Volunteers gathering in Tralee.
Instead, he went on the run, managing to stay one step ahead of his police pursuers, and eventually made it to the safety of New York. He was by then suffering from nervous exhaustion, something which the readers will relate to by the time they come to the end of this gripping book.
While awaiting the hangman’s noose, an imprisoned Casement wrote to his sister to say: “The only person alive, if he is alive, who knows the whole of my coming and why I came, with what aim and hope, is Monteith. I hope he is still alive and you may see him and he will tell you everything.”
Monteith told a lot more people via his memoirs, and it is fitting that the same tragi-comic story should continue to be told here. What a tale! And what an adventure, as Casement observed, albeit not a very happy one.
In February 1916, Roger Casement was recovering near Munich from an unpleasant combination of tropical fever and nervous exhaustion when he replied to a letter from the Countess Blücher, asking for help with writing tips for her diary. Eager to help, Casement expounded at length on the delights – and dangers – of keeping a journal:
You know the charm of a diary is its simplicity. Its reality and the sense of daily life it conveys to the reader depends not on style, but on truth and sincerity. It should tell things but still more of the writer and his (or her) outlook on those things.
Sometimes a diary could tell too much. Casement confessed to the Countess that he had given up on the one he had been writing while in Germany as he found himself recording things that were best left in the dark.
As indicated, keeping a diary was no simple matter but then, there was little in Casement’s life, not least his time in Germany, that was simple. As he confessed at the start of another diary of his, recently reprinted here: “It is not every day that even an Irishman commits High Treason especially one who has been in the service of the Sovereign he discards.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man already famous – for his exposé of human rights abuses, first in the Congo and later Peru – Casement was conscious of his role in history, taking meticulous care that his personal papers be suitably prepared and leaving behind detailed instructions for their dispersal and eventual publication. With an eye to posterity – and a trace of grandiosity – he explained the value of his documents to his friends: “they are historic & I leave them to Ireland.”
This forward thinking and the wealth of information it ensured are in no small part the reason why Casement has been one of the better remembered figures of 1916, despite his role being a sideshow to the Rising and not a terribly successful one by anyone’s yardstick: his mission to raise a regiment amongst Irish prisoners in German POW camps resulted in only a handful of recruits and the withdrawal of interest on the part of the German authorities.
The disillusionment was mutual. “My last day in Berlin!” he wrote in this diary’s last entry for the 11th April 1916 as he departed for Ireland and the fate he was at least half-expecting to find: “Thank God – tomorrow my last day in Germany – again thank God, an English jail, or scaffold, would be better than to dwell with these people longer. All deception – all self-interest.”
This book is well served by its editor. Historian Angus Mitchell adroitly guides the reader through the literary and historical context in which Casement composed this diary, and his introduction should be highly informative to those who know only of Casement’s diaries of the Black sort (Mitchell leaves his thoughts on the authenticity of that divisive matter unstated).
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Casement, always an engaging writer keen to leave an impression on his reader as evidenced by the artful descriptions – the Irish-American liftboys in New York had “the brogue still lingering round the shores of that broad estuary of smiles that takes the place of a mouth in the true Milesian face” – or his crisp accounts of his increasingly acrimonious relationships with various German officials.
Much of the later book makes for painful reading as Casement slowly realises the lack of concern his allies truly had for Ireland except as a convenient second front against Britain. Which should have been obvious from the start – after all, nations have no friends, only interests, and Casement was too experienced a diplomat not to know this – but the picture that emerges from these pages is of a rather fey individual, intelligent enough to recognise the scale of his plight but not self-aware enough to see how he got there in the first place. But at least he had the comfort of knowing that it was all someone else’s fault anyway.
Still, regardless of one’s thoughts about Casement – and he will continue to be debated – those wanting to learn more about one of the most iconic and controversial figures in 20th century Irish history would be well advised to start here with the subject’s own thoughts and feelings.