Is it better to be feared or loved, asked the wise Italian. Both are nice but, if one had to choose, fear should be prized over love, for men are fickle in their affections, while everyone thinks twice when the consequences are sufficiently dire. Machiavelli may have passed a harsh judgement on human nature, but the dilemma he presented was one the nascent Free State was forced to confront upon the shootings of Séan Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille on the 7th December 1922, resulting in the death of the former and the wounding of the latter.
Both were TDs in the Dáil, with Ó Máille being no less its Deputy Speaker, and yet their ambush had been committed in broad daylight on a public street as part of a “carefully laid plan to annihilate this government,” announced Eoin MacNeill to the Dáil. It was a strong statement but, then, the Executive Council of the government in question, to which MacNeill belonged, was in a defensive mood, having just ordered the deaths of four imprisoned men in response.
Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett had been woken in their cells, briskly informed of their impending sentence and then taken out into the yard of Mountjoy Prison where a firing-squad did the rest. All four had been part of an armed campaign against the Free State but, while war is hell, “from a legal perspective,” writes historian Séan Enright:
…these men were executed without trial for acts committed by others…The new state was barely two days old and the Constitution guaranteed life, liberty, freedom of conscience and due process or at least trial by military court.
Such requirements the Executive Council had manifestly failed to uphold. Nonetheless, the reprisals had their desired result. Save for a couple of ineffectual pot-shots, there were no further assassination attempts on TDs of the Free State. “Is there no alternative?” Kevin O’Higgins had asked when the Council met to sign off on the executions. ‘No’ had been the answer.
Still, these four executions were the exception, not the rule, for the Free State was generally careful in ensuring that its death penalties fitted within the framework of the law. Which law, however, was a tricky question in itself.
Until the Irish Free State came officially into being on the 6th December 1922, the Provisional Government was obliged to rely on British legislation to fill the legal gap – except when that would be inconvenient, such as Count Plunkett bringing forward a claim of habeas corpus on behalf of his son, who was one of the anti-Treaty prisoners taken at the Four Courts in July 1922.
Judge Diarmuid Crowley deemed it satisfactory and issued a writ which threatened to set a precedence for every POW to be set free. Instead, Crowley found himself arrested and detained at Wellington Barracks, in a cell next to one where another prisoner was being subjected to, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation’.
This was not the end of habeas corpus as a legal recourse: solicitors for Erskine Childers attempted it in a bid to avert his imminent execution, but Sir Charles O’Connor, as Master of the Rolls, simply brushed it aside on the grounds of the common good. “Suprema lex, salus populi must be the guiding principle when the civil law has failed,” Sir Charles ruled:
Force then becomes the only remedy, and to those whom the task is committed must be the sole judge of how it should be exercised…the salvation of the country depends upon it.
Childers had no one to blame but himself, Sir Charles continued, with his recourse to civil law being hypocritical given how such “jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war which he himself has helped to procure.” Sir Charles did not speak lightly; after all, the hearing was being held in the King’s Inns because the usual site of the Four Courts lay in ruins thanks to the war in question.
Ironically, Sir Charles had defeated an earlier regime by use of habeas corpus when, shortly after the Truce of 1921, he issued such a writ on behalf of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner due to be shot under British martial law. When this was refused, Sir Charles went further and issued another writ, this time for the arrest of the army generals accountable.
The military gave way and released the prisoner, a precedence that looked to unravel its counter-insurgency strategy should war resume. The Irish Provisional Government was clearly not going to risk the same thing happening on its watch, as Sir Charles shrewdly – if perhaps cynically – understood. He was an old legal face in a new system playing by new rules.
The Free State was thus cherry-picking which laws were opportune to apply while ignoring the rest. As always, cruel necessity was its defence. When presenting to the Dáil the case for establishing military courts with the power of life and death over POWs, Richard Mulcahy pointed to a couple of incidents where his soldiers had shot anti-Treaty captives out of hand.
Legalise, was his argument, for it is going to happen anyway in one form or another.
Much of this will be familiar to historians of the period, but Enright shines a torch on the legal aspects, making his readers see the topic in a new light: more than just another war but the struggle by one side to establish itself as the rule of law, by using the rule of law, even if it meant twisting the rules and discarding the law at will. How this will be addressed in the forthcoming centenary remains to be seen but, in any case, it was by these means that the Free State triumphed, albeit bloodily, not to say questionably as even the victors were aware.
The challenges of researching the conflict, as Enright observes, includes the paucity of reliable sources, due in no small part to the burning of sensitive documents just before Fianna Fáil took office in 1932. Succeeding in the Civil War did not prevent its winners from being voted out almost a decade later in favour of the losers, one of the many ironies of the times and which Machiavelli might have appreciated. Men, after all, are fickle in their affections.
The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.
“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.
“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”
Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:
Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.
You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.
By Order of the Army Executive.
With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.
As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.
But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:
Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.
Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.
“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”
Allegiances Remade and Broken
Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.
“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”
The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.
“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:
That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.
Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.
Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.
This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”
A Trial of Strength
Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:
How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.
As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.
Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:
In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.
Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”
The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”
Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”
The Power of the Sledge
Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.
The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.
Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.
The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.
“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”
The Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:
The sledge is not all-powerful.
On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.
Today we offer our readers seven.
The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.
Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.
The country has taken the measure of the sledges.
Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.
But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?
Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?
What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?
A Tremendous Responsibility
To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:
…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.
The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.
Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.
O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.
Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”
It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.
The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.
The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.
In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:
The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
A general election with an aim towards:
A government with the confidence of the whole country.
In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.
Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:
…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.
As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:
…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.
Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:
…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.
But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.
From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”
Who’s in Charge?
O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.
As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.
When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.
This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:
It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.
Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.
On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.
Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.
Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.
Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.
“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.
It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.
Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.
Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.
“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.
Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.
“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.
The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.
“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”
Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.
“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.
Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:
The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.
In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.
By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.
A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.
Tweaking the Lion’s Tail
Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.
As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.
While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.
To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.
Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:
Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.
It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.
An Irish Comic Opera
Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:
It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.
O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.
Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:
Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.
O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.
Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.
“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”
To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”
A Fanatic’s Spirituality
O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.
O’Connor was a busy man and so could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.
In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:
Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.
Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.
As for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.
In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.
“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”
“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.
Within forty-eight hours, it was over.
A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:
Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.
Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:
The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.
O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.
However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:
The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.
If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.
“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”
Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.
“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.
For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”
Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.
For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.
If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”
O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.
“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.
The Men Behind the Walls
O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.
“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.
That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.
“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”
It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.
O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:
…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.
This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”
The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.
Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.
‘The Quicklime on their Boots’
O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.
Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.
MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.
O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.
“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.
As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.
No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.
“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”
MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”
“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”
Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.
O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.
That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.
No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:
A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:
…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”
No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 24
Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,
I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,
I let you in, I held you close,
My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.
(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)
It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.
While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.
A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.
After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:
That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.
An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.
Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.
But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.
As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.
The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.
“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”
From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.
Upon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”
These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.
An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.
Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.
Too cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.
Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.
Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.
Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.
If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.
The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.
De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.
Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.
But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”
But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.
Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.
Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.
An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.
Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:
In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.
On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.
Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.
Stranger in a Strange Land
So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.
The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:
Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’
In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.
“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”
Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:
I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.
Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.
Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.
These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.
“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”
Not an Easy Job
When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”
In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.
The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.
It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.
It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”
Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:
…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.
Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.
Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:
Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.
Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”
Truce and Tension
Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”
Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”
As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.
Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.
The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”
Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”
He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”
With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”
As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”
A Crooked Correspondence
It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”
Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”
It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”
Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:
…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].
As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:
…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’
O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:
As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.
Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.
‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’
Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:
Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.
So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.
Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”
Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.
“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.
It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.
But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”
A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.
“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.
Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.
But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”
This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.
Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.
‘Confusion and Alarm’
If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.
Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.
“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”
Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.
With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.
“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”
Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”
The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.
An Existing Peace
Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:
We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.
Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.
Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:
Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.
So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.
Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”
‘Seizing Every Advantage’
The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:
…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.
The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.
Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.
The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.
After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.
Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.
What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?
O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.
Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:
Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.
To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.
Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:
Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.
O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:
A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.
Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.
For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.
The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.
“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”
O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.
Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.
“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:
Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.
As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.
O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:
[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.
To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.
“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”
Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.
O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”
When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.
While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”
Slaying a man in the heat of battle is one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”
 Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
In the early hours of the 28th June 1922, as he readied the men of his battalion inside Portebello Barracks for the assault on the Four Courts – the main part of which would fall to his men – Commandant Padraig O’Connor was in a pessimistic mood. He went so far as to make a wager with his second-in-command that not only would they fail, but the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, in whose service they were about to risk their lives, would lose the war. O’Connor doubted they would last more than a few days.
The reasons, as he explained to the other man, were obvious:
We numbered 800 all ranks, the second Eastern division was 500, with 200 from Kilkenny and it was reckoned we would have 1000 men available in Dublin. To oppose this force the Irregulars had in Dublin an estimated force of 3000 men, and there was in the country a force of 20,000 to 30,000 Irregulars.
Furthermore, O’Connor thought it implausible that the anti-Treaty leadership would be stupid enough to allow themselves to be boxed in the Four Courts. In addition to the garrison there, several other units of the Dublin IRA (Irish Republican Army) who opposed the Treaty were positioned about the city and would surely challenge them every step of the way. Nonetheless, O’Connor pushed aside such doubts when the time came at midnight to move out.
Urban combat was nothing new to him. An experienced soldier, O’Connor had cut his martial teeth against the British during the War of Independence, learning as he did so the value of caution. He accordingly moved his battalion in a piecemeal manner, allowing time to pass before the next unit advanced. Any ambush on the way would not find his charges bunched up as targets.
And yet, as the soldiers advanced through the dark, deserted streets, the resistance O’Connor was anticipating to find never materialised. There was a spark of alarm when a shot went off in Clanbrassil Street but that turned out to be an accident by one of his men. Contrary to his fears, the way to the Four Courts had been left entirely open to them.
Coming Right in the End
Still, O’Connor would not be claiming that wager just yet. His battalion continued over the Liffey to Smithfield, west of the Four Courts, while the other units allocated to the operation took up their own assigned posts, until the target was surrounded. In the Four Courts Hotel, sitting westwards of its namesake, Commandant Paddy Daly would direct the proceedings.
O’Connor could see that the Free State soldiers in the match factory opposite the Four Courts’ record office had been able to barricade their windows unmolested, with the Anti-Treatyites facing them doing nothing to interfere. But, if the enemy had been bizarrely complacent before, that stopped when the boom of an artillery gun signalled the start of the attack.
Almost as if waiting for such a provocation, the Four Courts garrison unleashed a storm of their own, to O’Connor’s horror:
The echo of the 18 Pounder had scarcely died away when every weapon at their command was discharged in to the factory windows. The fire was so heavy the flash of fire lit up the room almost as brilliantly as the street light before it splintered into a thousand fragments in the first few seconds. The intense fire punctured the tanks on the roof and deluged the room.
Seeing that they had been temporarily outgunned, O’Connor called on his men to withdraw to a more sheltered area of the factory.
Despite this small victory, the garrison could do little but stay pinned in place while the Free State ordnance pounded away. The barricades in the Four Courts’ windows were methodically dismantled by a Lewis machine-gun that tore into the lower tier of sandbags until they collapsed, taking the ones on top with them.
When the rotunda was struck, those beneath its dome felt themselves stretched up to their full length by the shockwave before coming back down again, along with the debris that showered them. When one asked Liam Mellows how long the war was going to last, he had no easy answer to give. “It will last a long time.”
“Will it last five years?” the other ventured.
“Oh, no, it will last much more than that,” Mellows said. “But they’ll come right in the end.”
Die Hard Chiefs
When an 18-Pounder of theirs blew through the records office wall, it was decided among the Free State command that the time had come to storm the building. First, though, an attempt at a negotiated surrender was made.
As O’Connor recalled:
It was a most unusual ceasefire; the bugler sounded the call outside the Brigade command post, the Four Courts Hotel and each bugler took up the call until bugle calls were being sounded all around the area. The silence that followed was unbroken and one found that one instinctively lowered his voice to a whisper when speaking.
The anti-Treaty IRA leadership, or the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ as O’Connor dubbed them, were willing to listen but no more than that. Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Seán MacBride stood at the gates of the Four Courts as their Free State counterparts conveyed the terms. As these were for unconditional surrender, they were instantly rejected. With nothing else to say, the two sides proceeded to pass the rest of the parley with idle chit-chat.
“When are you coming in with us, Paddy?” Mellows asked Paddy Daly.
“Tomorrow, with the bayonets,” replied a tactless Daly, chilling the previously amiable mood.
“Call yourself an Irishman,” MacBride snapped.
“I don’t know, but I did not have to write letters to the papers to prove I was,” Daly retorted, referring to the French-reared MacBride’s public assertion of his Irishness. McKelvey had to take an enraged MacBride by the arm and practically pull him away.
“Good night, Paddy,” Mellows said to Padraig O’Connor.
“Good night, Liam.”
And that was that. The men returned to their respective posts and the buglers called again, this time to announce the resumption of the barrage. “The din was awful for a while and then it steadied down to an occasional shot,” O’Connor wrote in his memoirs. He was finding that one could get used to just about anything.
A Purity of Purpose
As the days stretched from the 28th June to the 30th, it occurred to the men inside the Four Courts that the new Dáil, elected by the general election earlier in the month, was due to meet. When Ernie O’Malley asked if there were any TDs among them, Peadar O’Donnell mentioned Mellows and wondered if he would give them to a speech to mark the occasion.
In this, O’Donnell was wrong, as Mellows had failed to be re-elected. At the time, it had been regarded by some as a particularly shocking rejection on the part of an ungrateful electorate. “Deputies who had served the nation with unquestioning fidelity and purity of purpose are excluded from the Government of the Republic which they helped to create and defend,” lamented Poblacht Na h-Eireann, the mouthpiece of the anti-Treaty cause. “We need mention no other name than that of Liam Mellows to show how far the nation has departed from the spirit of the last four years.”
There were, in any case, more immediate matters for the Four Courts’ defenders to be concerned about. The munitions block had been on fire for some time, the crackling flames creeping down from the roof to the lower storeys. Afraid that the ammunition might detonate at any moment, the defenders hastily withdrew into the rest of the complex, taking some solace in that the fire would serve to keep the enemy at bay as well.
O’Malley was waiting in the yard, by the front entrance, while eyeing a nearby Lancia lorry as a potential target, when he was thrown against the iron bars of the gate by the force of an explosion. The fire had reached the munitions as feared. Fragments of stone and wood and scraps of paper came down in a charred hail, while a thick column of smoke rose from where the munitions block had been.
Bullets began ringing off the bars O’Malley was sheltering behind, accompanied by the smaller percussions of grenades being hurled against the walls or into the yard. O’Malley wisely chose to dash back inside the building.
The interior was in a scarcely better condition, its corridors and rooms littered with broken masonry and smouldering records, but it afforded some protection for now. When O’Malley found Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey in conversation, O’Connor called him over and said that the time had come to surrender. What ammunition that had not just gone up in smoke was in short supply, escape through the flooded sewers was impossible and whatever help there was outside did not seem in any hurry to arrive.
These were not facts O’Malley could deny. But that did not make them any easier to accept. He asked Mellows, who was peering at them through a shell-blown hole in the wall, what he thought.
“The Republic is being attacked here,” Mellows replied. “We must stand or fall by it. If we surrender now, we have deserted it.”
‘The Wilderness of the Treaty’
In this, he and O’Malley were in full accord. McKelvey, O’Connor and some of the other Headquarters staff were not so sure. Neither was Father Albert Bibby, a Franciscan monk who had come to grant them absolution. Nobody had any idea at the time about how pointed a weapon the power to bestow – or deny – this blessing would become.
With his brown robes and sandaled feet, Father Albert struck an incongruously medieval figure amidst the sound and fury of modern warfare. He preached to them the example of Patrick Pearse who had surrendered to save lives, but entreaties fell on the deaf ears of Mellows and O’Malley.
When O’Connor and McKelvey tried raising the subject once more, Mellows was adamant: “I’ve already told you what I thought, and still think.”
It was the Easter Week of 1916 all over again. Then, Mellows had stood unmoved in an old abandoned country house in Co. Galway while another man of the cloth, Father Thomas Fahy, urged him to see the necessity of surrender. Pearse had already done so in Dublin, and Fahy invoked his name in support of such a step – as Father Bibby would do six years later – but Mellows had remained closed to any argument but his own, even while the certainty of those around him crumbled, and the choice slipped out of his hands.
Better to live to fight another day, so decided the Galway Volunteers, as they voted to disband and return to their homes. Even then, Mellows had preferred to go on the run than submit – but that was not an option in the Four Courts, encircled as it was by Free State guns. O’Malley began to cry as even he bowed to the inevitable, but Mellows merely went along with the rest.
At 3:30 pm on the 30th June, a white flag was waved. Half an hour later, the one hundred and forty men who made up the garrison came out with their hands raised. With barely a word said, the beaten men were lined up against a wall and divided into groups, to be driven off in lorries to Mountjoy Jail.
Despite the relative silence of the proceedings, the battle for the Four Courts finished, not with a whimper but with a bang when, just after 5 pm, the back of the structure was rocked by a massive detonation. The fire had reached the ammunition stocks there and the results could be seen in the column of black smoke rising a hundred feet in the air, and felt in the debris of dust and charred scraps of paper that scattered about the surrounding area.
This was not yet the end, as a further series of blasts continued within the Four Courts, thwarting the efforts of firemen to save what was left of the historic building and forcing the would-be rescuers back, some with injures from the falling stone and metal fragments. It was not until evening that the nearby inhabitants felt safe enough to venture out on to the pavements.
The drama was done – for now. For, even as he and his comrades were marched away to captivity, Mellows continued to take the long view. “There’s one thing this will do,” he told O’Donnell beside him. “They’ll save the people from wandering about for a guardian in the wilderness of the Treaty.”
‘Striking and Vapouring’
It was a defiant response to the shame of surrender, and one typical of Mellows: impassioned, implacable and infused with a self-righteousness that left no room for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he bore some responsibility for the debacle. For the leadership of the IRA Executive, in which Mellows had played a prominent role, had been an unmitigated disaster. Risk evaluation, cause and effect, empathy for an alternative point of view and other concepts with more than one syllable had seemed utterly beyond their grasp.
How a group of otherwise capable men could fail so utterly baffled Padraig O’Connor as he entered the captured yard of the Four Courts, packed as it was with stolen cars. He assumed that such theft had been for the purpose of goading the Provisional Government into making the first move but, as he reviewed the events of the past few days, the less sense they made, for he could discern no clear thought process at all in the actions of the Anti-Treatyites.
After all their defiance, with the seizure of the Four Courts and other buildings throughout the country, the bank raids and rampant thievery:
It must have been apparent that there would have to be a flop of the Government, or a fight. When it came to a fight they were fully aware that the Four Courts were about to be attacked. They did nothing about it…The way down to the Four Courts was left open and they took the attitude “Hit me now with a child in my arms”. They were so close to the problem they could not see the details.
At almost every point, the Anti-Treatyites made their enemies’ work easier for them. Holes had been bored through each floor of the Four Courts – presumably for easier access – and then covered with blankets, so that, when these caught alight, the draught through the gaps guaranteed that the flames would spread throughout the rest of the building.
O’Connor searched in vain for some kind of explanation of their behaviour, only to run into one logical wall after another. Had the garrison expected the people of Dublin to rise up on their side?
If so, why had they spent so much time on details like the elaborate sandbag barriers outside the Four Courts?
If they were confident of success, why allow themselves to be hemmed into a defensive position?
If they had feared to lose, why did they not use their superior numbers to crush the Pro-Treatyites before they reached the Four Courts?
If, if, if…
O’Connor concluded that such speculation was pointless. He and the anti-Treaty leadership were of just too different mindsets to understand each other. For Mellows, merely resisting was victory enough for the Republic. To O’Connor, all the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ had accomplished was inflict “as much damage possible without winning, and then went to the Gaols and camps as martyrs in the cause of Kathleen [Ni Houlihan].”
Even defeat and incarceration taught them nothing: “They continued the attitude striking and vapouring which with them passed as pure idealism and maybe it was, of sorts.”
Letters from Mountjoy
Four months later, Liam Lynch was writing as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA to O’Malley. Lynch had escaped Dublin on the day the Free State began shelling the Four Courts and so avoided the captivity that had befallen so many of his colleagues on the IRA Executive.
O’Malley was another exception. Despite surrendering with the rest of the Four Courts garrison, he had managed to slip away and rejoin the Anti-Treatyites still at large. Lynch had appointed him as Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, with instructions to set up base in Dublin and continue the war from there, while Lynch directed the overall strategy from Munster.
And there was a lot to direct, not only in Ireland. “Any chance of getting in touch with Mellowes [alternative spelling] for information regarding America which would be helpful to Officers?” he wrote to O’Malley on the 7th September 1922.
Of particular interest were the munitions already purchased there, such as the Thompson machine-guns detained by the American Government and waiting to be delivered. Lynch was aware of Mellows’ previous sojourn in the United States and it was on that basis he was sure he “would be able to give a good deal of information and advice which would be valuable.”
For Mellows was not idle during his confinement in Mountjoy Prison. “Are we in touch with general situation? Well, yes! As far the newspapers allow us to be,” he wrote in response to O’Malley on the 23rd August.
Letters between the two men had been smuggled in and out of Mountjoy, allowing O’Malley to give a general outline of the war, for which Mellows thanked him. He was of like-mind with O’Malley’s opinion on their propaganda: “Agree with you as to poorness. Needs badly to be livened up.” The problem was that their material “seems to me to be too personal.”
Otherwise, he kept an upbeat tone: “The F.S. [Free State] seems to be a bit groggy these days.” Although Mellows did not say as much, he was writing a day after the death of Michael Collins, whose loss had knocked some of the stuffing out of Pro-Treatyites. It was enough for the prison governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, to gloomily predict the imminent return of the British.
Which would amount to a victory for Mellows’ and O’Malley’s cause, nullifying as it would the Treaty and possibly reuniting the sundered IRA factions against the common foe. It had been a cherished dream for the anti-Treaty leadership, though Mellows did not allow such happy possibilities to distract him from assisting O’Malley with character references.
A fellow prisoner, Seamus O’Donovan, had informed Mellows about a large amount of raw material for explosives hidden about Dublin from his time as the IRA Director of Chemicals. Mellows was quick to grasp the possibilities.
“If a good chemist or engineer were available, a lot of stuff could be turned out,” he told O’Malley:
Can you supply such a man for this purpose? Ryan, O/C Engineers, 3rd, has been mentioned, but it is not certain whether he is free or not. A better man would be John J. Tallon who worked for D/C [O’Donovan] at F.[our] C.[ourts] up to the attack. As he lived out, he was not captured.
For further information, Mellows recommended O’Donovan’s sister and supplied her address in Drumcondra. In the meantime: “Keep up the heart old son. Regards from us all. God bless you.”
Judging the Situation
Mellows did not limit his advice to details, for there was the bigger picture to consider. “I wish to point out that the matter of establishing a Prov. Republican Govt. has become imperative because of the possibility of the English taking a hand sooner or later,” he wrote on the 29th August.
For Mellows, the current war was as much against the ancestral foe as fellow Irishmen “duped or dazzled by the Free State idea.” The latter enemy, however, were perhaps a greater danger than the other, threatening as they did to outflank the Anti-Treatyites on home ground:
For the British to calumniate Republicans and belittle their cause by besmirching them is one thing; but for F.S. (and supposed potential Repubs.) to do it is another – and different, and worse thing; because the British will not use British arguments to cloak their arguments but Irish ones.
To prevent such muddying of the ideological waters, it was essential to set up the aforementioned Provisional Republican Government, he wrote, “otherwise it becomes a fight (apparently) between individuals” in the public mind, rather than one cause against another, as Mellows preferred to have it seen as.
And it was on the strength of what the Anti-Treatyites could offer the country that they would win or lose – of that, Mellows was sure. Military might alone would be insufficient, and Mellows was prepared to criticise his comrades at liberty for their narrow thinking:
During the past six months we suffered badly because responsible officers, in their desire to act as soldiers, and because of an attitude towards “politicians” acquired as a result (in my opinion) of a campaign directed towards this end by old GHQ, could only judge of situation in terms of guns and men.
In contrast, Mellows wished to use every available resource at hand.
Whether smuggled in, or via a guard with unorthodox reading tastes, a copy of the Workers’ Republic passed to the hands of the Mountjoy residents. The Communist Party, on whose behalf the newspaper spoke, was not, by any measure, particularly influential in Ireland. “A small number of persons in Dublin known as the Communist Party,” was how the Publicity Department of the Free State sneeringly put it.
Nonetheless, the Workers’ Republic offered a simple, striking vision, as presented in its edition for the 22nd July 1922. Under the tantalising headline HOW THE REPUBLICANS MAY WIN, Seán McLoughlin – the former ‘boy-commandant’ of the Easter Rising – expounded on how:
The way is clear. Victory lies with the side that can attract to itself the masses, the workers of the towns and cities, and the landless peasants.
The Anti-Treatyites had so far been stymied by their limited objective, and that was “a purely sentimental one as far as the masses are concerned – the establishment of a Republic.” Alone, this was not enough to vanquish the Free State. Neither could the Labour Party by itself. But, together:
The Labour Party, supported by the Communist Party, backing the Republicans and appealing to the people with a proper social programme will be absolutely invincible.
As for the programme in question, it should:
…be based upon the present needs of the masses, comprising confiscation of the land, the big estates and ranches to become the property of landless peasants, social ownership of creameries, etc.; confiscation of all heavy industries, banks, etc.; repudiation of all debts, and the controlling and running of industry; land and housing to be in the hands of councils elected by the workers and peasants.
This provided enough of an inspiration, or at least a starting-point, for Mellows’ own sermon, written over the course of three letters, on the 26th and 29th August and the 9th September 1922. In what is known collectively today as Notes From Mountjoy, he spelled out an ambitious set of policies to cut the authority out from underneath the Free State while winning the hearts and minds of the masses.
It was on these texts that Mellows’ reputation as a pulpiter of Republican Socialism rests, earning him the admiration of other notable figures, from Peadar O’Donnell – who would become a writer and activist of some note himself – to Gerry Adams, who described Notes as being “as relevant today as they were when first written.”
Apostle of the Creed
As a fellow resident of Mountjoy, O’Donnell was able to converse at length with Mellows, often while scrubbing the floors together or some other work duty. These talks made a deep impression on O’Donnell, who celebrated Mellows in his memoirs as “the greatest apostle of the creed of [Wolfe] Tone in our day.”
O’Donnell may have served as Mellows’ own St Paul, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter puts it: “O’Donnell was determined to propagate Mellows’s memory despite the scant body of material left behind.”
Scant, maybe, but Notes was at least an attempt at providing the Anti-Treatyites with a political policy, something they otherwise lacked besides simple repudiation of the Treaty.
Much of the content was unremarkable in itself, filled with the expected denunciations of the Free State, along with detailed musings on the sort of propaganda best to deploy. But it was the social dimensions that Mellows expounded on that elevated his work above the usual Civil War polemic, as well as earning a chariness from Official Ireland in the years to come.
While reprinting the Notes in 1965, the Irish Communist Group ruefully noted how difficult the work had been to find, let alone read:
One can see the Blue Paper in the National Library in Dublin if one meets a co-operative librarian who knows where it is kept. It is not catalogued. Over the past forty years there have been mysterious references to the Notes in Irish left wing circles, but these have only been published once (in the 1950s by the “Liam Mellows” branch of the Labour Party in Dublin).
It had not always been obscured. Indeed, the Free State was only too happy to publish Mellows’ words, via the Irish Independent on the 22nd September 1922, complete with headlines such as COMMUNIST REPUBLIC and DANGER TO CATHOLICISM, in case readers were unsure as to whether or not they were supposed to approve. Mellows may have deplored propaganda of an overly personalised nature but his Red-baiting opponents were not so finicky.
A month later, the Stationery Office of the Free State printed the letters as part of a 24-page pamphlet, Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others. As the title would suggest, Mellows was not even the intended focus. Inside were intercepted letters between de Valera, Lynch, Mellows and other prominent Anti-Treatyites, the reason for their exposure being “to brand the Republicans (including de Valera!) as communists. Unfortunately,” as the Irish Communist Group put it dryly, “they were far from being communists.”
Indeed, Mellows was more amused than anything at this label. “The effort to brand it ‘Communism’ is so silly,” he wrote in a letter to Seán Etchingham, a fellow Anti-Treatyite, on the 3rd October 1922. Yes, he had quoted a Communist paper as part of his work, but “I only referred to the Worker because it had set forth so succinctly a programme of constructive work that certainly appealed to me.”
Besides, trapped as he was behind the walls of Mountjoy, writing was the only course of action left open to him, lest he burn with impatience. “I wish to God I were out,” he told Etchingham. “Haven’t felt such energy for years.”
A Stake in the Country
Motivating Mellows in particular – as he explained in the first of his letters, on the 25th August 1922 – was the conviction that, for the Republicans to win, they had to look beyond themselves and rediscover their radical roots:
We are back to Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic. They are not with it now and they will always be against it – until it wins.
Among the pillars of society which had turned against the Republic was the Church, for which Mellows’ pen abandoned its usual analytical tone and almost flew off the page in rage:
Hierarchy’s abandonment of principle, justice and honour by support of Treaty. Danger to Catholicism in Ireland from their bad example – their exaltation of deceit and hypocrisy, their attempt to turn the noble aspect of Irish struggle and to bring it to the level of putrid politics; their admission that religion is something to be preached about from pulpits on Sundays, but never put into practice in the affairs of the Nation.
On a calmer note, if Republicans knew what they were against, then the question remained of what they were for. The Republic, yes, but what did that amount to?
According to Mellows, all they had to do was go back to basics, by way of the Social Programme that the Dáil had adopted in its first meeting, three years ago, in January 1919. Doing so would require no great shift in thinking, assured Mellows, for the Programme was already present on paper, if not yet in practise. The challenge lay in making clear to potential converts among the ‘men of no property’ what was meant by it. Mellows’ suggestion was that:
It be interpreted something like the following, which appeared in the Workers Republic of July 22nd last: ‘Under the Republic all industry will be controlled by the State for the workers’ and farmers’ benefit.” All transport, railways, canals, etc, will be operated by the State – the Republican State – for the benefit of the workers and farmers.
Continuing the line from the Workers’ Republic, banks likewise were to be nationalised, with the lands of aristocrats seized and divided up for others. This would not make any more enemies, for the moneyed classes were already on the side of the Treaty, so who cared about them?
All of which would suggest the Labour movement as a natural ally. While Mellows criticised Labour for its “unprincipled attitude”, he nonetheless pushed for it to be kept on board. After all, a number of Labour leaders, including Thomas Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal Shannon, had visited the Four Courts earlier in the year and complained of the slackness in the Dáil about implementing the Social Programme:
We should certainly keep Irish Labour for the Republic; it will be possibly the biggest factor on our side. Anything that would prevent Irish Labour becoming Imperialist and respectable will help the Republic.
The willingness to court others besides fellow doctrinal Republicans, and his citation of socialist policy from a Communist newspaper, did not make Mellows particularly open-minded, however. No one else seemed worthy of an outreach effort, and even Labour grew stale as a possible auxiliary. Writing to Austin Stack on the 1st September 1922, in the last of his three letters, he washed his hands of Labour, accusing it of having “deserted the people for the flesh-pots of Empire.”
This was while the situation was exceptionally ripe for anyone with a social programme to offer:
Starvation is facing thousands of people…The Free State government’s attitude towards striking postal workers makes clear what its attitude towards workers generally will be. The situation created by all these must be utilised for the Republic.
To help this utilisation, and to break things down to their most basic for even the dimmest reader, Mellows provided Stack with the positions their side should represent:
REPUBLIC – Workers – Labour.
While, on the other hand:
FREE STATE – Capitalism and Industrialism – Empire.
‘Fleshpots of Empire’
Such ideas, and the passion in which he argued them, was a new development for Mellows. As an elected representative, he had spoken to the Dáil, first during the Treaty debates at the start of the year – where he had earlier used the phrase ‘flesh-pots of Empire’ – and afterwards as part of the anti-Treaty block. And yet, while arguing passionately for the Republic throughout, he had been silent on what form of society this Republic would take. Social policy in general, let alone any particular ideas, had not featured in any of his speeches.
This sudden conversion surprised even O’Donnell, who had watched with Mellows from a barricaded upper-story window in the Four Courts as the Free State forces below set up positions to attack. The sight of a pair of civilians, diligently on their way to work amidst the unfolding militancy, prompted O’Donnell and Mellows to speculate on the role of trade unions had James Connolly been alive to guide them.
It was the first time I heard Mellows on the play of social forces in the crisis of the Treaty. I was present at the Dáil Éireann session when he made his speech against the Treaty but while what he said then impressed me greatly it gave no indication of the pattern of ideas he uncovered now.
For all his admiration, O’Donnell was to criticise Mellows for not addressing these issues at any of the three IRA Conventions in mid-1922:
He might not have carried the Convention – and he might – but anyway his views would have been argued over, and the dynamics of struggle, once the Republic was attacked, would have favoured them. His message from jail would then have been understood.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Socialism was very much a minority stance among the IRA. When Todd Andrews met O’Donnell during the Truce of 1921, he was amazed to hear such talk as ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers, small farmers and peasants’ and other class warrior tropes. Never before had Andrews heard this sort of language. Despite some ideological flirtation while in O’Donnell’s company, he instantly put these thoughts aside when the two men parted company.
Perhaps Mellows was simply ahead of his time. More than a decade later, socialism would receive a far warmer reception at the IRA Convention of March 1933, where the question of whether the Irish Republican Army should fight for social change as well as the Republic took centre stage. While Mellows was not around to advocate, his old friend was happy, as one of the delegates, to act as the Aaron to his Moses.
“Is capitalism for or against us?” O’Donnell asked rhetorically. “We cannot make progress unless we destroy capitalism.”
Against the accusations of Communism, and the assumption that such ideology was incompatible with Republicanism, he cited the example of his long-dead mentor: “Mellows was a great mind. He took the Workers Republic as his guiding line and that is supposed to be a Communist paper.”
Opposing him in this line of thinking was Tom Barry, who argued against complicating matters. To him, the reason the Civil War had been lost was because they spent too much time on distractions. “We took social action in 1922/23,” he claimed. “We failed in 1922 because we were dabbling in politics. During the day, officers were politicians – in the evening, they were in charge of Brigades. I want to avoid a repetition of this.”
Just because Mellows had said something did not make it so, Barry argued: “Mellows was not infallible in these important matters. It was simply his opinion. We in 1922 would not accept his suggestions.”
But Barry was in the minority this time, and Mellows in the ascendant from beyond the grave. “Mellows realised that, in 1922, the masses did not understand that we were fighting their fight,” said Seán McCool, a delegate from Donegal. Another attendee spoke of Mellows in the same breath as heroes like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Patrick Pearse.
At the end, O’Donnell’s motion for a social programme to go hand in hand with the IRA’s military goals was passed, the text giving full credit to its inspiration:
That the Convention believes that the draft programme of Liam Mellows provides a plan for the preparations of the armed insurrection and directs the Army Council to outline the manner in which the Army will co-operate with the Workers and small Farmers in their economic struggle while pressing forward with the greatest energy to put the Army in a position to avail of the situation which is developing.
Even Barry was prepared to go along with this shift in strategy, as he was the one to second the motion. In addition, a copy of Mellows’ original 1922 programme was to be printed in the IRA newspaper, An Phoblacht.
Carried away somewhat with his success, O’Donnell proclaimed that, if there was no armed insurrection within the next two years, those present at the convention would have failed in their task. Not for the first or last time, Republican Socialism was to forget to walk before trying to run.
Patriotism and People
In the years to come, O’Donnell lamented what might have been had Mellows lived: “It is a matter of regret that no fuller statement of his views had been secured while there was yet time.”
The extent in which Mellows actually believed in what he wrote, however, besides as a tool to rally support in a life-and-death struggle, is debatable. After all, he had come to such views, as even O’Donnell acknowledged, rather late in the day.
Had the Civil War never happened, if the Anti-Treatyites won early on, or the Treaty been rejected from the start, would Mellows have been nearly as interested in wealth distribution? He talked of the heavy-handedness the Free State was employing towards striking workers but gave no indication that a Republican government would be any more lenient towards dissent.
Certainly, the behaviour of the IRA Executive left much to be desired. When the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty, the Executive had resisted with the threat of arms, until either the offending agreement was dropped or the country dragged back into war with Britain, whether or not anyone else wanted it.
That other people could hold views different to his was a concept Mellows struggled with. Disagreement was treated as the direst of heresy, and even close colleagues were not immune to his censure. When Lynch – in the lead-up to the Civil War – had dared negotiate with the Pro-Treatyites, Mellows helped banish the Chief of Staff and his supporters from the Four Courts, leaving the Executive adrift in confusion until that fateful day on the 28th June 1922, when the Free State artillery boomed against their diminished defences.
Mellows criticised his allies for thinking only in military terms, but he was just as obtuse in his dealings with others. At his worst, he could border on solipsistic. Kathleen Clarke found out the hard way just how little her opinion mattered to Mellows, for all her past work, when she visited him and Oscar Traynor – a Dublin IRA officer – in the Four Courts in mid-1922.
To her inquiry about what the Executive intended to do from there, “they gave me no answer, and adopted an air as if it was no business of mine.” She warned them of the inevitable disaster should they continue with their course of action, to which Traynor mumbled something, while Mellows remained aloofly silent. Hurt and annoyed, Clarke left, surprised in particular “by the attitude of Mellows; he knew very well how closely I had worked with the leaders of 1916.”
While Mellows later expressed interest, in his Notes, about utilizing the masses against the Free State, that did not necessarily equate to concern for them besides as assets to be used. Contempt laced his words as he, looking ahead in the event of a Republican victory, anticipated a need for a rationing programme. He was not so naïve to think that a win alone would bring ease to the country, and many luxuries taken for granted, such as tea, sugar and foreign-made flour, would have to be foresworn in the lean times ahead. People would complain but what of it?
As a matter of fact, Ireland suffered nothing (comparatively speaking) either during the Great War or our war. English people (and English women) cheerfully put up with severe deprivations and we Irish think our Cause worth putting up with anything. But do we? Judging by the whines and grumbles, one is tempted sometimes to say “Certainly not”.
Mellows loved the Republic – but then, abstract entities that require nothing beyond what one chooses to give are easy to put on a pedestal. He loved Ireland – while passing through Slievenamon on the train in August 1920, he remarked, with tears in his eyes: “Is not Ireland a lovely spot, is it not worth fighting for and dying for?”
Whether he would have had much patience for the inhabitants of the country he planned to build, however, with their whines and grumbles, is another question.
A Difference in Outlooks
Among Mellows’ converts was O’Malley, who was enthused enough about the proposals coming out of Mountjoy to write to the Chief of Staff about them. “I had a note from the QMG [Quartermaster-General, as in Mellows] in which he states that the programme of democratic control adopted by AN DÁIL coincident with Declaration of Independence January 1919 should be translated into something definite,” he told Lynch on the 3rd September 1922. “I will forward some of his suggestions when I get them typed.”
Lynch, however, did not appear in any great hurry to act on these ideas. “Note the suggestion as to Republican Democratic Programme etc.; the moment I consider has not yet arrived for such action,” he replied to O’Malley nine days later, on the 12th September.
While Lynch assured him that “I will give the matter immediate consideration”, for the moment he preferred Mellows’ more practical considerations: “The QMG is right on the necessity of concentrating on Intelligence and Propaganda, leave nothing undone in these matters.”
The Chief of Staff continued with a relaxed attitude towards Mellows’ proposal that they make the 1919 Social Programme their own, as he wrote to O’Malley on the 17th September: “This step I consider not urgent at the moment, but Executive can consider this matter later.”
Lynch was at least willing to entertain such policy, as he asked O’Malley in another letter on the same day for a copy of the suggested Programme be sent to him. Also, Mellows was to be kept in the loop regarding political and strategic developments, and his opinions on them requested “from time to time, that is if he can fully judge the situation from inside.”
As the slightly condescending tone would indicate, Lynch was not necessarily appreciative of all Mellows had to offer. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch confided in O’Malley a day later, on the 18th September.
The Government of the Republic
Nonetheless, Lynch was willing to go through with one of Mellows’ suggestions: the establishment of a Republican Government. This was done on the second day of the Executive meeting – the first since the Civil War began – in Co. Tipperary, in October 1922, when de Valera was called upon, as the former President of Dáil Éireann:
To form a Government which will preserve the continuity of the Republic. We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic.
With de Valera so empowered, he could select his own Cabinet, with positions for Minister for Home Affairs, Minister of Finance and so on. Word filtered through to Mountjoy that Mellows had been made Minister for Defence, for all the good that did, locked up as he was.
Nonetheless, it gave his fellow prisoners reason to believe that things were in motion with the situation outside. Mellows, for one, hoped to have fleshed out his newfound ideas into a more coherent policy, ready to engage with the challenges in the country, by the time he was free. For a tunnel was being dug in conjunction with the Anti-Treatyites still at large, who had chosen a house near Mountjoy before setting to work, digging a shaft through the scullery floor, from which to continue on towards the jail.
Meanwhile, the war ground on. Little changed with the formation of the Republican Government – not that there was any reason for a puppet government to make a difference, and a puppet was all it was. Support from the IRA Executive was far from unconditional, however ‘whole-hearted’ it professed to be. Power would remain in the hands of military men like Lynch.
Whether this fell short of Mellows’ aspirations is another question. He had been realistic enough in his writings about the limitation of any such authority for the time being. There was little expectation that this Republican shadow-state was expected to do anything; for Mellows, its role as a counter-measure to the Free State’s so-called Dáil was sufficient, and Lynch had produced at least that much.
As for the economic policies Mellows espoused, nothing was said about them at the Executive meeting nor attempted afterwards. “I know of no alternative policy to present one of fighting we could adopt,” Lynch told Deasy candidly in early September 1922. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy.” Only after the war was over and the Republic established for good would they think about how it was to be run.
Operation Order No. 11
In this, he differed completely from Mellows. But then, Lynch had the power and the other man, while he lingered behind bars, did not. As Robert Brennan had warned Mellows in the Four Courts months previously, it was force that mattered now and nothing else. The rule of the gun was supplanting that of the law, and Mellows was about to discover for himself the grim truth of Brennan’s admonitions.
With the Free State resorting to the shooting of captured Anti-Treatyites, regardless of morals or legalities, Lynch reacted in kind with Operation Order No. 11 on the 30th November 1922. All members of the Free State authorities, whether civilian or military, who had endorsed the execution policy were to be killed on sight.
This fierce new strategy bore the first of its putrid fruit on the 7th December 1922. Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille were leaving the Ormond Hotel for a meeting of the Dáil, in which both men were TDs, and Ó Máille the Deputy Speaker. They were about to drive away in a sidecar when a group of six men stepped forward and opened fire with pistols.
Hales crumpled in his seat, riddled with bullets in the temple, throat, thigh, arm and left lung. On the other side of the carriage, Ó Máille, despite his own wounds in the back and arm, retained enough presence of mind to order the driver to head straight to the nearest hospital, for all the good it did Hales, who died within minutes of arrival.
When the news reached Mountjoy, O’Donnell attempted to commiserate with Dick Barrett, who had known Hales, a fellow Corkman, before the split. Barrett was unsympathetic. “Ah, shag him, why did he join them,” he retorted before storming off, the vehemence catching O’Donnell by surprise.
The Book of Cells
The days inside crawled by, the enforced idleness compelling inmates to improvise on activities. Mellows began a journal, whose title, The Book of Cells, was a pun on the famous Celtic manuscript. Other puns were exchanged between him and O’Donnell, such as one of the former’s: ‘When is a colt not a colt? When it is a forty-five.’
Both men agreed that the humour needed a little work.
At other times, Mellows and O’Donnell competed over satirical pen-pieces of the various Pro-Treatyites for the pages of The Book of Cells. Mellows did one on Eoin MacNeill, so O’Donnell one-upped him with a sketch of Ernest Blythe. When rumours were heard about the Free State’s plans to transport the prisoners to some island, Mellows took this as an inspiration for a short story, ‘Islanditis’, which endeavoured to make the threat seem like more of an exciting adventure.
Other intellectual pursuits of Mellows’ was the setting up of classes and seminars for the prisoners, bereft as they were of any other type of education for the foreseeable future. The topic of one such symposium was ‘Women in Industry – Equal Pay for Equal Work’, which O’Donnell attended on the 7th December, having had a talk of more immediate importance earlier that day with Mellows and Rory O’Connor. The tunnel-in-the-works, their best hope for freedom, had reached to under the exercise yard, O’Donnell learned.
It was only a matter of time.
After the debate on gender equality, O’Donnell strolled about the ground floor of the prison, thinking of nothing in particular, until the wardens ordered their charges back into the cells for the night. First, he stopped by Mellows’ room to tell him a joke he had heard. When McKelvey asked after the cause of the merriment, Mellows turned to repeat it to his cellmate.
“That was the last I saw of him, chuckling softy in the corridor,” O’Donnell remembered.
Blood for Blood
O’Donnell was briefly disturbed that night by the flash of a light through the door, next to which he had his mattress. Peering through to the corridor beyond, O’Donnell could see one of the wardens, accompanied by the governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, who had a piece of paper in his hand. O’Donnell and his two cellmates strained their ears to listen, but whatever the men outside were doing, they did it too quietly for O’Donnell to understand. After a while, he lost interest and went back to sleep.
It was not until the morning, when in the prison chapel for Mass, that O’Donnell learnt the reason for the governor’s nocturnal visit: he had been waking Mellows, along with O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey, with orders for them to dress and pack their belongings. Unaware of the reasons why, the four men were escorted out of C Wing and to separate rooms, where they were each handed a document, informing them that they were to be shot as a reprisal for Seán Hales.
“I just went wooden. I was completely devoid of all feeling,” O’Donnell described. “I saw men sob and I heard men curse but the whole chapel was detached.”
And detached O’Donnell stayed, sitting numbly in the chapel even when Mass was done, before moving to the sacristy – though he did not remember doing so – where he met Father McMahon, the only one of the prison chaplains who O’Donnell semi-respected. It was only when McMahon told him of the executions, with the reassurance that he had given Mellows absolution, something otherwise denied to the prisoners, that O’Donnell snapped out of his vacantness and rounded angrily on the surprised priest.
The question of absolution had been a thorny one in Mountjoy ever since the episcopal intervention in the form of the Bishops’ pastoral letter in October 1922, which had brought the Church Hierarchy firmly in favour of the Free State. To O’Donnell and many of the other inmates, the prison chaplains had become another set of enemies to contend with.
“The bishops were leading a clerical faction while [Michael] Collins was leading a lay-faction,” was how O’Donnell put. “The spirit of Cromwell had returned to Ireland and Maynooth was its tabernacle.”
Memories of absolution denied to unrepentant Anti-Treatyites inside prisons such as Mountjoy were still fresh enough for Canon John Pigott to write in the 1960s, at the behest of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, an account of his visit to Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey on the night of their deaths. Of those final hours, “there have been many different and very contradictory accounts of what actually happened.”
Pigott bemoaned how many of these reports “were spread abroad for their propaganda value without any regard for the truth.” In particularly, Pigott was keen to correct the impression that Mellows had gone to his end denied the spiritual comfort of the Last Sacrament:
That lie has been so persistently repeated by a small anti-clerical group that it is possible that a number of our people believe it.
As Pigott remembered, he was telephoned, between 1 and 2 am on the 8th December, from Mountjoy and told that there were to be executions of some of the prisoners, one of whom, Rory O’Connor, had asked for him. Then a chaplain for the Free State military, Pigott was not the most obvious choice, but he and O’Connor evidently knew each other from before.
In any case, he dressed in time for the car to come and drive him to the prison. Taken first to O’Connor’s cell, he found his friend pale but composed and accepting of his end. He was next asked by Father McMahon to see Mellows, with whom, McMahon explained: “We have not been getting on at all.”
Mellows was clearly going to be a more complex case than O’Connor. Pigott found him to be:
In a strange mood for one who was to die in a few hours. He was obviously agitated and talkative, and I believe, elated that he was going to die for Ireland. He said he had written to his mother, and handing me the letter he said: “Read that”.
Pigott did so, and was shocked to read Mellow informing his mother that he was being denied the sacraments in his final hours. He urged Mellows not to send such a piece and to use the short time left to pray for God’s forbearance. Pigott then withdrew, sensing that nothing would be gained by staying to argue. Father McMahon had apparently tried that already, only to leave Mellows as truculent as ever.
Pigott next saw Mellows, with the three other condemned men, shortly afterwards in the chapel. While Father McMahon performed Mass, Pigott stood inside the altar rails, facing the kneeling prisoners while he recited with them the prayers. O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey received the Holy Communion which was to be their Viaticum, but Mellows, Pigott noted with dismay, did not.
Pigott made getting Mellows alone his priority, but time was running out as Mass ran to the length of an hour, and then an hour and a half. When McMahon was at last done, the four were ushered out of the chapel, Mellows at their head, with O’Connor in the rear, accompanied by Pigott.
As the prisoners were blindfolded, en route to the yard, Pigott saw his last chance to ensure Mellows’ spiritual salvation slipping away. Running up to the front of the line, Pigott took the cloth off Mellows’ head and said: “Liam Mellows, you are not going out there without Viaticum.”
“Ah! It’s too late now,” Mellows replied, according to Pigott’s account. “I have held them up all the morning.”
The priest insisted that this was not so, and that there was time yet for him to make his peace with the Almighty. “That he was now ready to do, I had not the slightest doubt,” Pigott remembered, salvation seemingly a question of timing as much as anything.
He took Mellows by the arm, back down the corridor to a room he had seen was open when he passed, while Father McMahon retrieved the sacramental instruments from the chapel. Then McMahon got down to work. Though long-delayed, the Last Rites took only a short while; Mellows, as Pigott put it, “was a deeply religious man, and his fervent prayers at the end had gained him a very special Grace from God.”
As they went to rejoin the others, Mellows took out a small crucifix from his pocket. “I want you to give her this when all is over,” he told Pigott, meaning his mother. “It was out in 1916, too.”
There was one more detail Father Pigott had almost overlooked. As Mellows was being blindfolded again, the priest remembered the letter from before, and asked if he would like to write a few more words in light of his shriven state. Mellows declined, saying: “There is no time now.”
It took a few minutes for Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey to be lined up in the yard, their backs to the wall, before the firing squad. As Father Pigott delivered the Last Absolution, he saw Mellows shuffle the gravel beneath his feet so that he could stand more firmly.
“Slanlibh [goodbye], lads,” he said, the crucifix firmly in hand.
In another instant the sign was given: the volley rang out: the men fell, and Canon McMahon and I anointed them where they lay on the ground.
The process had not been flawless, for McKelvey still lived, if barely, requiring one of the two Free State army officers on standby to deliver the coup de grâce. For the other three victims, at least, death had been instantaneous.
It was by then after 9 am, and Father Pigott, who was due to give Mass for the soldiers in Griffith Barracks, had to dash away, late enough as he was. He had reached the outer gate of Mountjoy when he remembered the crucifix, and so doubled back to pick it up from where it had fallen in the yard.
That cross would provide some solace to the priest, as it had to the condemned man, when it fell to Pigott to break the news to the bereaved mother. “Next day, with a heavy heart I called to the door in Mount Shannon Road [the Mellows’ household]. I felt I could never face the ordeal had I not in my pocket that little Crucifix ‘that was out in 1916 too.’”
However tragic, Father McMahon, for one, was heartened by how Mellows had not gone to meet His Maker burdened with sin. “I’m sorry for any wrong I have done,” Mellows had said, as the priest relayed to a distraught O’Donnell to comfort him.
In a way, it did. McMahon seems to have missed – though O’Donnell did not – that Mellows had not repented of anything specific, certainly not for his actions against the Free State and all it stood for. To the very end, Mellows had been unwilling to concede an inch.
 O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011), pp. 91-6
 Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 284
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 26
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 161
 Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004), p. 3
 O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 5, 27 ; Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013), p. 31
 Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965), p. 17
 ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 231 (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)
 O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963), p. 9
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)
Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)
Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922)
Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013)
Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Hopkinson, Michal. Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1988)
Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965)
O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011)
O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)
O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland
Bureau of Military History Statements
Fahy, Thomas, WS 383
O’Donoghue, T., WS 1666
Moss Twomey Papers
‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)
Since its armed takeover, on the 14th April 1922, by the anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Four Courts in Dublin had been, in the words of one of its garrison, a “veritable fortress”. Which was appropriate, given that it served as the base for the IRA leadership, the sixteen-strong Executive. As a mark of its importance, the building complex was reinforced with sandbags and barricades in its windows, behind which sentries with rifles and machine-guns watched over the city.
The overall impression was one of rough, unvarnished power:
Everything concerning it, emanating from it and centring it was purely and principally military; nothing was left to chance, as a military post and general Headquarters…In other words, it was the core, the very essence of IRA activity and of IRA administration.
Entry was strictly limited to those issued with a pass by the garrison command, whether for its soldiers or the odd guest. One of the latter was Robert Brennan, who came sometime in May 1922, in response to an invitation by Liam Mellows, the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive.
They had known each other since 1911, when Brennan had come across a troop of Fianna Éireann boys in Wexford, the one with unusually fair hair catching his attention in particular. When introduced to this golden youth, Brennan found himself “looking into the blue eyes of Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”
Such virtues had waned somewhat by the time the two men met again inside the Four Courts, eleven years later. Despite his own rejection of the Treaty, Brennan made clear his disapproval of his fellow Anti-Treatyites and their antics when he turned down Mellows’ offer to be their Director of Publicity.
He could not, Brennan explained, because there was nothing more that publicity could do: they had abandoned all authority save that of the gun and no amount of public relations could hide that unpalatable fact.
Mellows was hurt at the accusation. “The Republic is being undermined,” he replied. “What else could we have done?”
“Possibly nothing,” Brennan said bluntly. “Your job is to get the other fellow to submit or submit yourselves. The time for publicity is passed.”
“Well, we’re going to act.”
“By attacking the British.”
“But they are going out.”
“We’ll attack them before they leave.”
When an unimpressed Brennan told him what he thought of that, Mellows insisted: “It’s not as crazy as you think. It’s the only way we can unite the Army.”
In that regards, Mellows had a point. A common foe would certainly do wonders in bringing the sundered comrades together again. But it was a sign of how topsy-turvy the world had become that a man whose efforts to free Ireland of foreign rule had been second to none was now, in all seriousness, suggesting the return of British soldiers for want of any other solution.
When Ernie O’Malley walked in to ask Mellows about the tunnels to be dug for an escape route. Brennan made his excuses and left, more depressed than ever at the insanity unfolding all around him.
A glimmer of hope came to a country poised on the brink of fratricidal war when, on the 20th May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera put their names to an agreement. A general election would be held and contested by both their respective factions, but with everyone standing on the same Sinn Féin platform, without reference to the Treaty, either in regard to the candidates’ opinions or for the country in general – the matter being considered too prickly to be grasped just yet.
In truth, it was intended to be an election in name only with the voters doing nothing more than rubber-stamping the names presented to them, but that the two sides could agree on anything at all was heralded as a major breakthrough. Former comrades who had been at each other’s throats now mingled freely inside the National University, as TDs waited for the Dáil session to open so they could give this accord the official seal of approval. Mellows stood with his legs far apart, his hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches while he chatted with Richard Mulcahy.
After all the gnawing tension, the announcement of this ‘Pact Election’ was “greeted with relief by all of us,” remembered Máire Comerford, a secretary in the Sinn Féin offices:
Everything looked brighter after that…Now, with the Pact, friendly exchanges of arms going in between Free Staters and Republicans…and a conference between the rival armies which had reached the point of agreement, it seemed certain that there would be an agreement.
Mellows took full advantage of this, visiting Beggars Bush barracks to see Seán Mac Mahon, Quartermaster to the Free State forces. Joining him on a number of these visits was Tony Woods, son of Mary Woods, whose home on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, had provided a base for Mellows during his gun-running days as Director of Purchases.
Probably because of his acquaintance with Mellows, Tony Woods had been transferred to his staff and travelled with Mellows to Waterford to help arrange the arms-landing there, via the Frieda, in November 1921. Woods remembered his commanding officer as a “low-sized man with a very high forehead; extremely witty and a great story-teller.”
The purpose of the meetings in Beggars Bush, as with Mellows’ previous duty, was that of weapons. The Free State owned the City of Dortmund, another ship used to smuggle in guns, and it was a sign of the heady new rapprochement that half the shipments went to the Anti-Treatyites while the pro-Treaty IRA kept the rest. Woods was uncertain of the details at the time, but the idea was that these weapons would make their way up to Ulster, where the Northern IRA was still engaged with British forces.
As well as in Beggars Bush, Woods joined his commanding officer for clandestine visits to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to meet a mystery contact of Mellows’. There, they received implements for the purpose of overturning trams to form barricades and listened to some far-fetched scheme to flood the British market with forged pound notes.
Though Woods never caught the contact’s name, he suspected he was a Communist, Mellows being open to such company. This put him at odds with his more conservatively-minded peers, for whom Bolshevism and their Catholic faith could never meet, let alone mix. While Mellows was “religious in his own way,” Woods thought, “he nonetheless tended towards socialism.”
Moderates and Extremists
Even as relations between the Pro and Anti-Treatyites began to thaw, those within the IRA Executive conversely took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps it was the lack of a firm guiding hand that caused cracks to form in the Executive. Maybe its components were too strong-minded to ever coexist comfortably with one another. Authority nominally rested in Liam Lynch as their Chief of Staff but, having bucked military discipline once before, it was no great taboo to do so again, and it soon became apparent that different groups were acting on their own volition without consideration for the rest.
“Thus the Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor – a Dublin member of the Executive (and no relation to Rory) – put it, a sigh almost audible in his words. When a number of bank robberies were carried out, Joseph was not even sure if it had been Lynch or Mellows who authorised them.
Another Executive insider, Liam Deasy, was similarly in despair. He was close to Lynch, and it pained him how, for all of his fellow Corkonian’s accomplishments in the fight against Britain, it was “painfully obvious that he was not considered sufficiently extreme by some of his colleagues.”
Deasy characterised these tensions as “a clash between the moderates and the extremists.” He counted Lynch and himself as the former, while identifying Mellows, along with Rory O’Connor and Séumas Robinson, as among the latter. Mellows was at least more personable than O’Connor, but that small mercy did little to alleviate the tensions, the result of which led to:
…many unpleasant incidents reflecting badly on the elected Executive. Worse still it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side.
The hurt and anger are still discernable in Deasy’s words, written years later in his memoirs: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful.”
This policy in question was that, by keeping the anti-Treaty IRA armed and intact, they could push for – or force – a more republican-orientated Constitution for the new government, one without the burden of the Oath of Allegiance that so stuck in many a craw. Not that there was any need to worry, reassured Mulcahy and Michael Collins, for such a constitution was already on the cards. This was good enough for Lynch and Deasy, who “had at the time, no reason to doubt the credibility or integrity of those who had given that promise.”
Which was one of the points on which the ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ on the IRA Executive differed. Todd Andrews became acquainted with Mellows while performing clerical work in the Four Courts as part of its garrison. When Mellows entered his office, where he was working alone, the two struck up a conversation on the state of affairs. Andrews found him to be “a low-sized man with thinning sandy hair and merry blue lively eyes. His whole personality seemed to radiate kindness. He was a dea-dhuine (decent man).”
Andrews was flattered that someone so important would take the time to ask his opinions. When the topic of conversation came to that of their Chief of Staff, the kindness became rather less evident, for it seemed to Andrews that Mellows was “critical of Liam Lynch for placing too much trust in Collins’ and Mulcahy’s good intentions.”
Seán MacBride was unaware of much of this drama, having been in Berlin for the past ten days on Mellows’ behalf. Most of his work in Ireland involved the secretarial side of the IRA, such as the paperwork dealing with the numbers of the various anti-Treaty units throughout the country, but the cosmopolitan 18-year-old (and future politician) was also sent abroad by Mellows on occasion for certain assignments.
This time, it was to contact an arms dealer called Hoover, who the IRA suspected of double-crossing them. MacBride succeeded in convincing Hoover to accompany him back to Ireland for a meeting, set for the morning of the 18th June, the plan being for MacBride to arrest the miscreant then and there. Hoover was none the wiser as they caught the early morning mail-ship to Dublin, where they separated, Hoover heading off to the Shelbourne Hotel while MacBride made his way to the Four Courts.
Upon arrival, MacBride availed himself of a wash and some food before chancing upon a flustered Mellows, much to the latter’s relief, for an IRA convention was set to start and no one could find the notes prepared in advance. As MacBride hurried off to help find them, he saw O’Malley, his superior as the Director of Organisation.
O’Malley was only just getting up, having toiled well into the night. He quickly brought his young assistant up to date with recent developments. There had been backroom talks between the heads of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, he explained, about healing the breach and reuniting former brothers-in-arms.
Which was a noble goal in principle. As certain members of the Executive would hold positions on the proposed new Army Council and thus retain some influence, it might even be said to be a good deal. But, in practical terms, such a move would also mean coming under the control of the Free State and all that – specifically the Treaty – entailed.
When these proposals had been put before the IRA Executive, they were voted down by fourteen to four, although it was also agreed for a convention to be summoned, the third in three months. There, the questions could be put to their followers and decided on for good.
“Of course all these things came on me like a bombshell, as when I left the whole Executive was quite united,” MacBride recalled. Clearly, a lot could happen in ten days.
There was no time for MacBride to deal personally with Hoover, whose appointment in the Four Courts was almost due. So he delegated the arrest to someone else, while he tracked down the necessary documents for the convention, to be held in the Mansion House.
It took an hour for MacBride to finish checking the credentials for the various delegates at the door, and then another lengthy period of time as the question of who among the Executive was to be the chairman was discussed – and discussed – and discussed. Such was the tenseness of the atmosphere that even a simple matter as that was anything but. Finally, Joseph O’Connor was chosen for the role and the convention could begin.
As MacBride remembered – and there would slightly different versions of that event from other attendees – Mellows opened by reading a report on the general state of affairs. When he was done, Tom Barry, the famed guerrilla commander from West Cork, rose to make a proposal. Instead of the one on whether to reunite with the Pro-Treatyites, as many in the hall had been expecting, it was that an ultimatum be delivered to the British Army still stationed in Ireland: withdraw within seven-two hours or face war all over again.
MacBride had been warned beforehand by O’Malley, but most of the others present were caught by surprise. It took another lengthy, drawn-out process, with various speakers chipping in, for it to be generally understood that Barry’s war motion was intended to be an alternative to the reunification one.
In MacBride’s opinion, “it was very foolish of Barry to have put forward such a resolution at the Convention.” While he agreed with what the Corkman was trying to do, “by putting it forward at a Convention without consulting anybody, as he did, was putting those who supported that policy in a very awkward position.”
As if to pour oil on to the fire, Mellows followed up with a “very depressing speech”, which exposed all too “clearly that there was a very big split in the Executive.”
Anyone previously unaware of these festering divisions could be left in no doubt now. On one side was Liam Lynch, the Chief of Staff, who was pushing for the reunification proposals, with the support of Liam Deasy and Seán Moylan. Arrayed against them in favour of a more hard-line approach were Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Tom Barry.
MacBride lost track of the proceedings, as speech after speech was delivered, blurring into one. When the war motion was finally put to the vote, MacBride was one of the two tellers. Barry’s proposal was found to have passed by a couple of votes, a razor-thin majority which was immediately challenged on the basis that certain delegates had not been present at the previous convention in May, thus invalidating their contributions. When the objection was upheld, a revote was made, this time resulting in the defeat of Barry’s motion.
This was too much for Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who left the room when the reunification proposals were brought up in turn. With them followed half the remaining participants, including MacBride. He found O’Connor and Mellows conversing outside with Joe McKelvey, a third member of the Executive. Another convention would be held, the trio announced to those who had accompanied them, in the Four Courts the next day.
There was just two further matters to see to, both of which Mellows assigned to MacBride: return to the convention and alert the rest as to what had been said. Also, he was to retrieve Mellows’ hat, left behind in the commotion.
MacBride did so. “There was an absolute stillness and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door. A few more delegates came out.”
Amputation and Isolation
When Joseph O’Connor called in on the Four Courts the following morning, he was barred by the sentry, who pointed to a set of photographs at hand and said he had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone depicted. The faces were those who, like O’Connor, had stayed behind at the convention instead of leaving with the dissenters.
O’Connor was shocked. He had watched for some time, with growing dismay how fissures formed in the Executive, but this exclusion was the final straw. When O’Connor could not even see anyone in charge for an explanation, he turned instead to the rest of the Executive, who had likewise been expelled from their own headquarters.
And so it was a diminished body who gathered at Gardiner’s Row for an uncomfortable session. Lynch, in particular, was outraged but, since there was little any of them could do, it was decided to take no action for the moment. While O’Connor was departing Gardiner’s Row, he came across Mellows, who urged him to return to the Four Courts. Clearly, there were second doubts about the wisdom of such a heavy-handed approach.
As O’Connor was still in a sour mood, it took some persuasion on Mellows’ part for him to agree to meet with the Executive mutineers, who were in the midst of setting up a war council of their own. After O’Connor explained to them at length the lunacy of having two separate anti-Treaty armies in Dublin, concessions were made in the form of Lynch and his adherents being allowed inside the Four Courts again. Lynch had by then resigned as Chief of Staff, with McKelvey taking up the role instead, for what it was worth, as his authority did not extend to anyone other than the occupants of the Four Courts.
It was a peculiar situation. Having witnessed the debacle of the convention, Todd Andrews was so disgusted that he announced to his senior officer, Ernie O’Malley, his intention to resign. O’Malley talked him out of it, but the fact remained, in all its spiteful absurdity, that “the Four Courts garrison had amputated their most powerful limb, effectively isolating themselves in the last bastion of the Republic.”
‘The Straight Road to the Republic’
Two days later, on the 20th June, three or four army lorries drove Mellows, Rory O’Connor and other senior officers from the Four Courts to Bodenstown to mark the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. Ireland, the republican cause and the IRA, whatever the particular faction, may have been in pitiable disarray, but there were still rituals to perform and commemorations to attend.
The day was a dark and muggy one, with an overcast sky, perfectly suited to “suggest the pathetic fallacy to match our gloomy mood,” remembered Andrews, who had joined the pilgrimage. The others huddled around Mellows as he made a speech at Tone’s graveside, full of denunciations of those who were trying to undermine the Republic – and that included anyone, whether Free State or faint-hearts like Lynch who talked the talk while lacking the nerve when it counted.
It was an attitude summed up by MacBride who, unlike Andrews, was in full agreement with such a viewpoint:
It was far better to break off quits from those who were prepared to compromise on such a vital question, that of the control of the Army, and of the working of the Treaty. As in fact they had already done when they acquiesced in the proposals by which the control of the Army was to be given to the Provisional Government.
Far from being a calamity:
It probably would have been even better if such a split had come before, however weakening it might have been; it was far more weakening to have the Army controlled by people, who, although sincere, did not put their heart into it and who still believed their opponents could be trusted in negotiations.
‘The straight road to the Republic’ was how Mellows had explained it to a friend, Frank Robbins, who visited him in the Four Courts the day after its takeover. Robbins had urged him to compromise or else prepare for war, but Mellows had dismissed the possibility of either happening, unable or unwilling to face the looming consequences of his actions, even when they were explained to him.
And perhaps that was his fatal flaw, and the reason he and the others were so daring, and so dogmatic, because, almost to the last hour, none of them truly believed that things would reach the point of war.
A war with Britain, yes, another one would be ideal, as Mellows had explained to Brennan. What better way to bury the hatchet than by planting it inside the skull of a common foe? But a war against fellow Irishmen? Even a precocious young cynic like Andrews assumed the Pro-Treatyites would never go so far as to attack them, however fragmented they were. For this would mean civil war, and such a thing was clearly an impossibility.
“Something would still be done to avoid that contingency,” was how Andrews remembered the thinking at the time. “I never thought it could happen that IRA men would try to kill fellow IRA men.”
Mellows happily sleepwalked into disaster with the rest. In the week before the 28th June 1922, when – to steal a line from W.B. Yeats – ‘all changed, changed utterly’, Mellows sent for Sheila Humphreys, a member of Cumann na mBan who had sheltered IRA leaders like Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha during the War of Independence, back when they were all on the same side. She met him at the home of Mary Woods on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, another republican safe-house for troubled times.
There, Mellows cheerfully outlined to Humphreys how the pro and anti-Treaty IRA factions had acceded to a policy he had long hoped for: uniting against Britain, specifically British rule in the North. If the enemy would not come to them, then the Fenian Mohammed would go to the imperial mountain.
With that in mind, he instructed her to pick six other women from Cumann na mBan and go with them to Co. Donegal to set up a field hospital in preparation for the operations to come. In addition to first aid equipment, he provided a revolver each for the women, including spare ammunition and explosives.
Some of these had come off the City of Dortmund and shared between the rival parties during the earlier lull in tension. Other firearms from the cargo were still inside the Four Courts by the time of the 28th June, when all hell broke loose. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Woods pointed out that this “will give some idea of the speed with which events moved in the weeks preceding, and how suddenly completely personal relationships came to be broken.”
Over the next few days that led up to the 28th June, events moved with considerable speed, indeed.
A stand-off unfolded on the 26th in South Dublin, as a body of pro-Treaty IRA men rode in on lorries from Beggars Bush to confront the Anti-Treatyites who had held up a garage in Lower Baggot Street. All its cars had already been driven away to the Four Courts, and the anti-Treaty men who remained were in the process of wrecking the garage machinery when their Free State opponents arrived to box them in.
As reported by the Irish Times:
Negotiations were entered into between the leaders of the two parties, and it is understood that the official forces demanded complete evacuation on the part of the raiders and also, it was stated, the return of the “commandeered” cars.
The trapped Anti-Treatyites were given three hours, until 6 pm, to comply. After two and a half, the twenty workmen held prisoner inside were allowed to leave. Soon afterwards, the Pro-Treatyites manoeuvred one of their armoured vehicles to the front of the garage, training its machine-gun on the closed gate, while the rest of the squad positioned themselves for the threatened assault.
As 6 o’clock approached, it looked as if fire would be opened at any minute, but at the stroke of six the gate was opened, and the Beggars Bush forces were admitted.
It appeared that some of the Anti-Treatyites had already absconded via a back entrance. Those still present were detained, though only one was made a prisoner – the commanding officer, Leo Henderson. Despite the non-violent (‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word) resolution, it had been a close thing.
“Indeed,” wrote the Irish Times, “it seemed at one time as if a conflict between the forces of the Provisional Government and certain irregulars was imminent.”
The Four Courts garrison issued a protest to the media at Henderson’s treatment as a common prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. They quickly made their displeasure known in a more direct way when, in a tit-for-tat move, Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was held up while leaving a friend’s house on Leeson Street.
That O’Connell had seen fit to make personal calls, while uniformed and unattended in public, does not suggest that the sense of danger among the Pro-Treatyites was high. But that changed. Contrary to their demands for a full return, only two of the sixteen cars stolen from Lower Baggot Street had been given back and now, with a general of theirs a captive in the Four Courts, a decision was made.
Despite the commotion over Henderson, the talk at the IRA Executive conclave inside the Four Courts, on the 27th June, was about nothing in particular. Even the news that Michael Collins had just returned from London, where he had been castigated for his failure to break the impasse, did little to worry them.
At the end, as Joseph O’Connor made to leave, he was informed by his adjutant that their pro-Treaty opponents in the city had been confined to their barracks, as if in readiness for…something.
When O’Connor passed this on to Liam Lynch, the other man merely said: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.” He added, almost as an afterthought: “You had better tell McKelvey.”
When O’Connor did so, McKelvey at least had the presence of mind to alert the Dublin IRA about the city to stand to until midnight. Mellows chose that moment to invite O’Connor to tea, “being anxious to tell me of IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] activities in having the Treaty accepted.”
That the IRB was at the root of their problems was a conspiracy theory favoured by many of the Anti-Treatyites, including Mellows. Long gone were the days when he had been an active operative for the Brotherhood, on whose behalf he travelled the length of the country to prepare for the Easter Rising.
When O’Connor declined the offer on account of having to be with the rest of the Dubliners, they agreed to meet instead on the following evening. Clearly, neither of them suspected that anything was especially amiss.
That was the last time the pair were to see each other, as O’Connor mournfully recounted:
At four o’clock the following morning the attack on the Courts started and I never saw Mellows again. What a pity, for of all the men on the Executive, he was the one I most loved.
During the previous four months of trouble and anxiety we had become very close friends, in complete sympathy with each other’s national outlook, and I certainly would have liked to have got that story.
O’Connor departed the Four Courts, accompanied by Liam Lynch, with Mellows and most of the other Executive members remaining. By 10 pm of the 27th, the rumours of an impending assault had become definite when a visiting Franciscan friar informed them that Free State soldiers were leaving the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the direction of Dublin.
The lovingly-crafted fantasy world that Mellows had inhabited for the past few weeks, in which everything was fine and all would sort itself out, was about to be rudely intruded.
Suddenly alert to the inadequacy of their defences, neglected during the past few weeks of inactivity, the senior garrison officers hurriedly – and belatedly – consulted each other on what to do.
Always one of the more aggressive among them, O’Malley wanted word sent to the Dublin IRA for them to post snipers over the routes to the Four Courts to stop the Free Staters in their tracks, with preparations to be made for a counter-attack. But McKelvey disagreed on the grounds that they should retain the moral high ground of not casting the first blow. O’Malley, Mellows and Paddy O’Brien, the garrison commander, were exasperated at this indolence, however well-meant, but McKelvey’s motion to hold their ground and do nothing else was carried by the rest of the Executive.
As armoured cars drove up, the Anti-Treatyites were forced to watch impotently from the windows, under orders not to shoot, while enemy soldiers disembarked to cut the wires of the mines planted outside, rendering useless even these token precautions. At least the defenders could busy themselves by erecting more coils of barbed wire, cleaning their guns and checking the ammunition stocks, but otherwise did nothing as more vehicles arrived, the Lancia lorries parking before the gates as if to point out how thoroughly besieged the occupants were becoming.
Under the dome of the rotunda, the leadership met again, with Mellows, McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, O’Malley, O’Brien and others sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Some wanted to escape while they could and join the anti-Treaty units outside the city but Mellows was unsure.
“We don’t know what the country will do,” he pointed out, meaning the other Anti-Treatyites. At last he seemed conscious of the damage their bickering had caused. Even if the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA decided to join them, it might not be in time to make a difference.
“We have created the Four Court situation,” he concluded, according to O’Malley’s recollections. “We should face the responsibility.”
He was seconded by Rory O’Connor. As they represented the Republic, he said, it was only right they stay to defend it, regardless of how poor a strategy that was. Paddy O’Brien protested, urging the Executive to slip away while he and the rest kept the Pro-Treatyites busy, but was once again overruled.
Not so manageable was Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary IRA. To him, staying put like so many eggs in a basket was pure idiocy. After an attempt by Mellows and O’Connor to persuade him otherwise degenerated into a heated row, Robinson stormed off into the night. It was another loss for the Executive, one final split in a movement bedevilled by them.
Still, for some, the glass before them was half-full. As the defenders prepared for the showdown, resigned to a fight many suspected they could not win, Mellows paced the grounds with a rifle slung over his back, finally in his element.
“God, it’s good to feel myself a soldier again after all these futile negotiations,” he told O’Malley, patting the barrel of his gun.
 Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40 ; O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 199
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 221, 237
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.
As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:
I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.
As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:
Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.
For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.
This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).
An Extremist Speaks
Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:
Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.
Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.
Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.
Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.
‘Red with Anger’
For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.
When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”
“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.
Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.
Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.
Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.
That Gang of Mine
Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”
The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?
Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.
Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.
He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”
Only One Army
When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.
Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.
Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.
By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.
As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”
He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.
On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”
The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.
Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.
The Army of the Republic
Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:
At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.
The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.
Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.
“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.
“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.
As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”
This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”
For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.
Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.
Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.
Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.
The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.
The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.
After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.
The First Glorious Day
Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.
“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”
Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!
This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.
“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.
Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”
After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.
Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.
As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.
After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”
When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”
In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:
On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.
No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.
And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.
The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.
He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”
Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.
Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:
Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.
Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.
I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.
The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.
Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”
That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.
He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:
The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.
The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.
This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.
As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.
In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.
The West Awakens
The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:
As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.
That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.
Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.
A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.
“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.
The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.
Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:
Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.
Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:
As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.
And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.
The Sligo Situation
The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.
Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.
Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.
Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.
It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.
Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.
Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.
Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.
There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.
Success in Sligo
This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.
As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?
After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.
He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.
As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.
The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.
A Death in Athlone
The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.
“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.
“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.
Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.
Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.
This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.
Securing the Midlands
Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.
While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.
When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.
At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.
Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.
Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.
Squabbles in the Dáil
Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.
The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.
But not all agreed on the solution.
Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:
At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.
Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:
De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.
Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.
De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.
As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”
An Impossible Situation
Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”
Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.
All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.
At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.
It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.
Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.
Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”
At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.
Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.
She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.
In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”
The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.
The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.
In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:
They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.
At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.
As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:
I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.
Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.
A Longford Wedding
Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.
Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.
Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.
But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.
Or perhaps not.
A Return to Sligo
Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.
Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.
Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.
It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.
Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11
Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)
Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office )
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Shortly after 8 pm on the 12th January 1923, John C. Dinneen answered the door to his residence on Morehampton Road and found himself confronted by six youths, who seized and dragged him out, breaking the little finger of his right hand in the struggle. When he plaintively asked if he could at least put on his boots instead of the slippers he had, he was refused. The pistols brandished in his face deterred any further resistance – as they did to a couple of passers-by about to come to the rescue – and Dinneen was bundled into the waiting motorcar and driven away.
Blindfolded, Dinneen was closely questioned for over half an hour, at the end of which he was able to convince his captors that he was in fact John Dineen the insurance company official and not John Dineen the TD for East and North-East Cork. The kidnappers apologised for their error, explaining that they had been hoping to hold the other man in case any punishment was exacted on Ernest O’Malley, an imprisoned comrade of theirs.
The wrong Dinneen was allowed out of the car and left on the pavement, “somewhat shaken as a result of this trying experience,” as the Irish Times reported with masterly understatement.
‘His Exacting Adventure’
Dinneen was not the only kidnap victim that night, or even that same hour. Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a member of the newly-formed Senate, was relaxing in his bath when his maid alerted him to the presence of four strangers on his doorstep – or, rather, right outside his bathroom, as the newcomers had followed the woman upstairs. Two remained on the stairs while the other pair entered the bathroom, where they ‘asked’ Gogarty to come along with them, his medical services purportedly needed for an injured friend of theirs.
Gogarty was not naïve enough either to believe them or think he had a choice. As with Dinneen, experiencing his own abduction at the same time, Gogarty was blindfolded and driven away. Catching a glimpse of his surroundings as the car stopped at a house by a river, the senator guessed he was in the Island Bridge district, next to the Liffey, an area he knew well.
He bided his time while under guard in the house. After requesting a breath of fresh air, he was led out to the yard by one of his captors. Steeling his nerves, Gogarty asked his unwanted companion to hold his heavy coat when he took it off. When the latter obliged by stretching out his hand, a revolver held in the other, Gogarty flung the coat over his head.
He plunged into the swollen Liffey, swimming with the icy current before dragging himself onto the bank with the aid of some overhanging bushes. Once again, the Irish Times knew exactly how to treat a terrifying ordeal with a light touch: “With the exception of some slight bruises about the head and face, Dr Gogarty was little the worse for his exciting adventure.”
His daring escape would become the subject of a number of comic verses. As a final indignity, Gogarty – as sardonically noted by Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Local Government – missed the chance to claim them as his own until too late.
Terrorism and its Countering
As the name-dropping of O’Malley would indicate, the kidnappers had been no common or garden-variety criminals. Nor had their victims been selected at random. Since November 1922, O’Malley – Assistant Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as O/C to its Northern and Eastern Division Commands – had been held in Mountjoy Prison following his capture in Dublin.
He had not been taken easily, going down in a blaze of glory and gunshots which had severely wounded him and killed a Free State soldier, but gone down he had all the same. Now he was facing a court-martial, the end result of which could only be the firing squad. If so, he would not be the first IRA prisoner to be put to death.
Ever since September 1922, when the Government had passed its Public Safety Bill – or the ‘Murder Bill’ as its intended victims dubbed it – the number of executions had grown from a trickle to a grimly steady number. Even notable names and famous figures from the war against Britain, such as Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, were not safe, both being executed in December 1922.
Such a measure was controversial even among the Government’s supporters but its ministers remained unapologetic. “Once civil war is started, all ordinary rules must go by the board,” was Blythe’s verdict. When threatened, the duty of the state, as he saw it, was “to supply sufficient counter-terror to neutralise the terror which was being used against us.”
On the other side, Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, was of the same opinion, the difference being that, as he saw it, it was the Anti-Treatyites who were using counter-terrorism against the sort used first by the Free State. He had taken to heart the danger O’Malley was in, as he told Éamon de Valera on the 10th January: “We are doing our utmost to take hostages to be dealt with if [O’Malley] is executed.”
To Lynch, he was merely fighting fire with fire: “We will have to deal with all enemy officials and supporters as traitors if this execution takes place. They mean to wipe out all the leaders on our side, so we had better meet the situation definitely.”
In line with this hard-edged policy, he wrote to Frank Henderson, the O/C of the Dublin Brigade. Tersely and crisply, Lynch instructed him that:
You will leave nothing undone to take three persons who are active supporters of MURDER BILL, prominent enemy officials or active supporters of FREE STATE as hostages. You will ensue they are persons we can execute, if enemy murder [O’Malley].
For Lynch, ruthlessness had come slowly, almost grudgingly. On the 12th September 1922, he had, while decrying the on-the-spot killings of defenceless IRA members, instructed against retaliations on “unarmed Officers or Soldiers of enemy forces.”
Three months later, he was issuing ‘Operation Order No. 14’, which called for “three enemy officers to be arrested and imprisoned in each Brigade area”, to be killed in turn for every IRA prisoner executed. By January, his Adjutant General, Con Moloney, was circulating a list of twenty-two Free State senators whose homes were to be destroyed, and themselves targeted, man for man, in the event of further POW death sentences.
Even some in the anti-Treaty command were troubled at this escalation, such as de Valera. As President of the Irish Republic, with Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic, the two leaders were, in theory, partners, each responsible for their own sphere, de Valera the political and Lynch the military. But the President felt it necessary to warn Lynch that his policy “of an eye for an eye is not going to win the people to us, and without the people we can never win.”
Lynch was unmoved. “We must adopt severe measures or else chuck it at once,” he replied, stressing that, up to now, the Anti-Treatyites had been blameless: “IRA in this war as in the last wish to fight with clean hands.” It was the enemy who “has outraged all rules of warfare” and were consequently responsible for everything that ensued.
Meanwhile, inside the hospital wing of Mountjoy Prison, O’Malley himself was taking a resigned view of his predicament. When asked by a visiting Free State officer as to whether he required legal assistance with his trial-to-come, O’Malley replied that, as a soldier, he had done nothing but fight and kill the enemies of his nation and would do so again. No defence on his part was necessary, especially not for a trial with a foregone conclusion.
The only hope for a reprieve was for the prison doctor to declare him unfit for trial due to his still-healing wounds. His frail condition did concern O’Malley greatly, as he feared collapsing “at the trial through weakness, and the enemy may state I collapsed through funk.”
Communications between him and Lynch were possible through secret messages smuggled in and out of Mountjoy. Lynch reassured his captive colleague that: “I have great hopes that as a result of our action that your life will be spared as that of many others. I assure you nothing will be left be undone.”
That the need for such actions had come about in the first place was a source of great indignation to Lynch: “It is outrageous to bring you to trial under your present physical condition but they have done such barbarous acts that they may stop at nothing.”
The IRA finally bagged a catch on the 30th January when John Bagwell, a Senator in the Free State as well as Manager of the Great Northern Railway, was led away at gunpoint while walking home to Howth. The Free State authorities had been silent on the previous abduction attempts on Dineen and Gogarty but now that one had succeeded, Major-General Dan Hogan hastened to remove all doubt as to the consequences:
NOW WARNING is hereby Given that, in the event of the said Senator John Bagwell not being set, unharmed, at liberty, and permitted to return to his own home, within 48 hours of the date and hour of this Proclamation, Punitive Action will be taken against several associates in this conspiracy, now in custody and otherwise.
Published in the newspapers, this notice, with its undercurrent of menace, could scarcely be missed. Hogan underlined his intentions by gathering into Mountjoy about forty of the most prominent IRA prisoners. If anything happened to Bagwell, so said the unspoken threat, these would be first to feel the promised punitive action.
Punishment as Deserved
Lynch strove to be equally pugnacious. A letter of his own to the press, signed on the 1st February, a day after Hogan’s proclamation, warned that:
We hereby give notice that we shall not give up our hostages, and if the threatened action be taken we shall hold every member of the said Junta, and its so-called Parliament, Senate and other House, and all their executives, responsible and shall certainly visit them with the punishment they deserve.
This deadly game of brinkmanship was bloodlessly broken when Bagwell reappeared at the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Kept in a farmhouse, he had waited until the morning of the 6th February, when he had returned to his room after breakfast while his captors were busy eating theirs, carefully opening a window to climb out.
A cross-country runner, he was soon able to put some distance between him and his prison. After several miles of countryside, he chanced the highway and flagged down a motorist who drove him the rest of the way to Dublin. He departed for London the next day.
“It was stated that the Senator’s visit was strictly unofficial,” read the Irish Times, “and that for obvious reasons, he did not desire his whereabouts to be known.”
The Personal Touch
The campaign against Free State personnel continued, such as when Dr George Sigerson, the acting chairman for the Senate, resigned in early February 1923 after receiving a letter that threatened to burn his home down. Faced with such desertions, the Government hastened to stem the exodus and keep its representatives on board – and in line. Sometimes the personal touch was enough, such as when another senator was dissuaded from following Sigerson in resigning after a friendly heart-to-heart with Blythe.
Frank Bulfin was not treated quite so amiably. A group of three men – one of them being Joe O’Reilly, a former gunman in Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ – tracked down Bulfin after the TD for Leix-Offaly privately expressed his intentions to step down from his seat. According to Blythe, Buflin plaintively asked the trio if he was under arrest. They told him he was not, although the bulges in their coats that hinted at the revolvers beneath did nothing to reassure the TD. Nor did the following:
They told him it would be advisable for him to come to town. Bulfin thereupon entered to motor with them; and somewhere along the road they performed a charade, which certainly shook him.
They stopped the car and one of them proposed that they “shoot the oul’ bastard and have no more trouble with him”. Another agreed that it would be the simplest procedure, while a third, ostensibly more cautious, argued that Cosgrave would be so annoyed with them that they would be in endless trouble.
After what appeared to be a long wrangle, the fellow who was against such bloodshed seemingly succeeded in restraining the others, and Bulfin was put back in the motor car and brought to town.
By the time Bulfin was brought before President W.T. Cosgrave, Bulfin had obligingly changed his mind about quitting. “We had no other incidents of the kind,” Blythe noted coolly. “I suppose Frank’s story got round amongst the T.D.’s.”
Both sides were displaying a penchant for intimidation. The main difference was that the Pro-Treatyites proved better at it. No further kidnappings were attempted after Bagwell. In light of Hogan’s threats, it can be speculated as to whether the senator was allowed to abscond in order to avert the promised ‘punitive actions’ without a complete loss of face. In the test of wills, with hostages used like human poker chips, the IRA had crapped out.
As it turned out, O’Malley would never be declared fit for trial, thus saved from a court-martial and an almost certain firing squad. But, even under the shadow of death, he never lost his composure, maintaining that in the big picture, he and his fellow POWs no longer mattered: “We are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” He was more concerned that others might “take the line of least resistance and surrender.”
Because not all of the imprisoned IRA officers had been as sanguine as O’Malley or as certain as Lynch that victory remained forthcoming. Breaking ranks, Liam Deasy had taken a step that not only forced the Anti-Treatyites to revaluate their chances but shook Lynch on a very personal level.
On the 9th February, under the headline REMARKABLE PEACE PROPOSALS, the Irish Times told of how Liam Deasy, the IRA Deputy Chief of Staff – having been arrested on the 18th January near Cahir, Co. Tipperary, and sentenced to death seven days later – had put his name to the following document.
I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –
I accept, and I will aid immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as requested by General Mulcahy.
(Signed) Liam Deasy
Accompanying this bombshell was a longer and more personal statement from Deasy to explain his decision. His calls for a surrender was not based on the fear of defeat, he wrote; indeed, Deasy insisted that the Anti-Treatyites could continue their military campaign for years. But so could the Free State and, with the Government policy of executions, the conflict was descending into “a vendetta, the development of which would bring family against family rather than soldier against soldier.”
He had been dwelling on this sordid situation for some time and had “decided that the interests of freedom would not be best served by continuation of hostilities, and was prepared to advocate a cessation on defined lines when prevented by my arrest.”
Remarkable Peace Proposals
Despite such stated doubts, Deasy strove to present a picture of a man very much unbroken. He blamed the coarsening of the conflict solely on the Free State in its treatment of POWs. While admitting that his action might appear inconsistent with his past gung-ho behaviour, he could “only trust that comrades with whom I have worked in the past will understand the motives which influenced this action of mine.”
Deasy concluded with a rallying cry for the future and the hope that things would work themselves out:
To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.
Regardless, one critical fact could not be disputed: a senior officer in the IRA had publicly collapsed, to use a word of O’Malley’s, through ‘funk’.
Others picked up on Deasy’s example. A signed statement from twelve prisoners held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to meet with their commanders still at liberty and discuss a possible end to hostilities. Sensing weakness, the Government offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty – signed by its Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – to enemy combatants on condition of them surrendering with their weapons on or before the 18th February.
A Satisfactory Position
Lynch replied swiftly and predictably. Delivered to the press on the 9th February, the day after Deasy’s statements were, Lynch’s written response was curtly matter-of-fact:
I am to inform you officially, on behalf of the Government and Army Command that the proposals contained in your circular letter on 29th January and the enclosure cannot be considered.
As in the case of all officers captured by the enemy, an officer has taken charge of [Deasy’s] recent command.
Privately, Lynch had a good deal more to say. In a personal letter addressed to Deasy, he lambasted his former confidant for impacting on a situation that had been, Lynch was sure, won in all but name:
Before you took action our position was most satisfactory from every point of view and that of the enemy quite the opposite. Your misguided action will cause us a certain set-back, but this will be got over and the war urged more vigorously than ever. It is clear you did not realise the actual fact and that at most you only took the local view into consideration.
Still, Lynch was not so enraged that he could not add: “Hoping that peace will soon be attained and that your life will be spared to the Nation.”
Lynch consoled himself with the thought that Deasy’s apostasy would have little effect on the rest of the IRA. In this, he was probably correct, in the opinion of his aide, Todd Andrews, if only because those still fighting had been benumbed to anything short of complete disaster.
When Christopher “Todd” Andrews received a summons to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, to see his Chief of Staff, he could only wonder what for. That Lynch knew of his existence at all was a surprise in itself. The only time they had ever met – if ‘met’ was not too strong a word – was prior to the Civil War. Andrews had been performing clerical duties in the Four Courts as part of its IRA garrison when Lynch stuck his head into his office, giving Andrews a pleasant smile when he saw there was no one else there, and departed without a word.
Still, an order was an order. Not wanting to keep his superior waiting, Andrews set off from South Wexford where he had been serving as part of its IRA brigade. Rain had begun to fall by then, in early February, and Andrews and the driver assigned to take him were soon soaked to the skin. A flooded road ahead forced them to take shelter for the night, with Andrews ferried across the swollen Barrow River the next morning.
Brought to a large country house, Andrews found Lynch in the parlour, seated by a table heaped with papers. Even years later, Andrews still vividly remembered the appearance of his commanding officer:
Liam was a handsome, six-foot-tall man, oval-faced with a noticeably high forehead from which light brown hair was slightly receding, although at this time he was only twenty-nine years old. Being short-sighted, he wore thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles.
Despite their difference in rank, Lynch greeted the newcomer in a friendly manner, introducing him to the third man in the parlour, Dr Con Lucey. A licensed physician, Dr Lucey served as the IRA Director of Medicine while doubling as Lynch’s secretary and driver.
After some small talk and tea, Lynch got down to business. He planned on travelling to Cork ‘to pull the South together’, as he put it, and wanted Andrews to accompany him as his adjutant. Flattered by the offer, and more than a little awed by the other man, Andrews was surprised further when Lynch asked for his opinion on the state of the war.
Andrews had not thought his views as a mere rank-and-filer could be worth much. But he had had the chance to study the fighting in different areas and at various times, allowing him to draw a number of conclusions, which he provided unsparingly to Lynch:
As far as I had the opportunity to observe at first hand, the military situation was going very badly. Nothing, of course, was happening north of the [Ulster] Border and between Dublin and the Border, except for Frank Aiken’s men, the IRA had virtually ceased to exist. I told him that I thought the Dublin Brigade was so reduced in personnel as to be militarily ineffective.
I related my experiences of the South Wexford men and the high opinion I formed of their quality and morale, but my information was that there was nothing to be hoped from Carlow, Kilkenny or North Wexford.
Lynch took all of this in his stride. A ‘glass half full’ person, he chose to be encouraged by the compliments his new adjutant paid to the South Wexford IRA rather than consider too deeply the rest of what had been said. Lynch said he felt certain he could put things to right once he was based again in the South, the part of the country he was most familiar with.
Andrews was not so sure. That their Director of Medical Services was also sharing in the duties of Lynch’s Man Friday did not strike him as the best advertisement for their organisational abilities but that was one thought he kept to himself.
‘A Simple, Uncomplicated Man’
Lynch could take some solace from his toils in the company of his new adjutant. The two men quickly bonded, Lynch being amused at Andrews’ often sardonic commentary on rural mores, delivered in his thick Dublin accent. That Andrews was not afraid to voice his opinions allowed the normally reserved Lynch to open up – and he had a lot on his mind to say.
He did not hate his enemies in the Free State. Instead, he felt only sadness that they should have dishonoured their nation so. That Collins had signed the Treaty in the first place, and thus keep Ireland under the British Crown, was a source of horrified wonder to Lynch, as was the increasing savagery of the Free State in its shooting of prisoners.
As incomprehensible such behaviour was to Lynch, Andrews was equally baffled at how the Chief of Staff could be so oblivious to the severity of their military situation. “He had developed some mental blockage which prevented him from believing that we could be beaten,” Andrews concluded. Lynch expressed more concern at the insulting use of the term ‘irregulars’ towards his forces – as if name-calling was a step too far alongside executions and murder – than he did at the impending possibility of defeat.
To the self-consciously worldly Andrews, his commander was a study in innocence:
He had no sophistication in any field; he was a simple, uncomplicated man, believing in God, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and, loving Ireland as he did, he had dedicated his life to her under God.
In keeping with such piety, Lynch would kneel to recite a decade of the Rosary every night before bed. Bitter at the clergy for their denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit, Andrews declined to join in these devotions, considering himself no longer a follower of Holy Mother Church. It was the only point of contention between the pair, with Lynch explaining to Andrews the distinction between the principles of the Catholic faith and the temporal politics by men of religion. 
The only indulgence Andrews saw Lynch partake of – besides excessive optimism – was a small whiskey in a roadside pub. Even that one occasion was the exception as, on every other time, Lynch had declined any alcohol offered in the houses he stayed in.
As promised, Lynch travelled south, Andrews by his side, leaving Leighlinbridge for the Nire Valley and then to the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, where he was due to meet Con Moloney. A Munster man to the core, Lynch was invigorated by being back on home territory, the company of his own people a welcome tonic to the months of hardship and disappointment.
But there was no time for dilly-dallying. After four or five days in the Glen, with Moloney nowhere to be seen, Lynch took off for West Cork to put a dampener on some unauthorised peace talks he had caught wind of. He left Andrews with instructions to inform Moloney, when he finally appeared, of his decision to set up base in the South where he could continue directing the war.
When Andrews learnt that Moloney had been picked up in one of the National Army’s sweeps, he realised that Lynch’s plan of ‘pulling the South together’ from Tipperary was already defunct. Any IRA structure there had collapsed into a desperate struggle by individuals just to survive.
When Andrews rejoined the Chief of Staff in Ballinyeary, he found Lynch at a table surrounded by papers and maps, Dr Lucey typing away at a side table, much like their first meeting. As before, Lynch received him warmly. He was unsurprised at the loss of Moloney and also undismayed when Andrews reported on the general state of disarray amongst the Tipperary IRA.
Lynch refrained from mentioning – Andrews learnt this from Lucey instead – about his muster with the staff and officers – those who were left – of the First Southern Division on the 26th February. Not only had they told him facts he had no wish to hear, they had pressed him into something he had been putting off for some time.
The First Southern Division
One misunderstanding Lynch had been keen to correct to the assembled delegates from the Cork and Kerry brigades – fourteen in all, including him – was that it had been Éamon de Valera who had turned down their initial request for an Executive meeting. While Lynch stressed the relationship between the IRA and de Valera’s government-in-exile as a tight one, he left the others in no doubt as to which wing of the republican struggle held the upper hand.
“The President was of great assistance,” Lynch assured them, “but had no authority to interfere in Army matters and he (C/S) was alone responsible for summoning Executive.”
Lynch had postponed a second meeting of the IRA Executive – the first had been four months before in October 1922 – due to the importance, he said, of officers remaining in their own brigade areas with no distractions. Also, Lynch had been on the move and so missed the correspondence from the First Southern Division about their desire for an Executive session.
It was a wishy-washy response on Lynch’s part – he had turned down the chance for an Executive meeting, yet could not be blamed for not calling another – but the other men seemed to let it pass. There was, after all, more to discuss, which boiled down to two points: the reaction to the Divisional ranks to Deasy’s surrender appeal and the state of morale otherwise.
The good news was that it was unanimously agreed that the former had had little effect. The bad was that no one present, save for Lynch, thought they had a chance of surviving through the summer, let alone of winning.
Great Hopes for the Future
“If the enemy pressure is maintained we can’t last and will be wiped out in a short time” was the verdict from the O/C of the First Kerry Brigade. Whether large operations or smaller-scale reprisals, any action on his unit’s part was impossible given its poverty of resources compared to the Free State’s, whose “steam rolling of the South would soon finish us,” he gloomily predicted.
The Divisional Director of Operations was of like mind and spread some of the blame on the other areas: “The whole position of the South depends on the rest of the country and the relief it can give us. All Brigades agree a summer campaign is impossible and if the rest of the country fails we cannot exist.”
He also pointed that the National Army had recruited up to 20,000 extra men. The Free State could keep resistance in the South pinned down and still have the numbers to focus on the rest of the country.
Lynch took all this naysaying in his stride. Having done his best listening impression, he told the others that he:
…quite realised the position in the South and the morale and suffering of the men and officers. It was in the South that the British were beaten and felt the attitude of the enemy towards the men who won the war for them. He reviewed the position in the rest of the country and although the position in the South was pretty bad he felt the situation in general was very good and held great hopes for the future.
He would not be continuing the war if he did not think they could win, Lynch assured them. None of those present appeared convinced, though no one had the gumption to openly doubt Lynch’s cheery forecast. Some instead took refuge in a grim fatalism, such as the O/C of the Third Cork Brigade who declared that his men would plough on “until beaten which is not far off.”
One common demand was for the overdue Executive meeting for which they had previously asked. That way, it was hoped that there could be a chance to clear the air and ask the necessary questions as to what to do next.
Lynch left the meeting with a certain amount of distaste for the outspokenness he had encountered. To him, such reluctance to keep quiet and press on was perilously close to mutiny. “What they mean by acting on their views, I cannot understand,” he complained in a letter to Con Moloney on the 29th February, three days after the pow-wow. “However, I hope we are now done with it.”
As for the doom and gloom on display, it had been for Lynch to endure, not seriously consider. Writing again to Moloney on the 2nd March, he said, unaware of how his recipient had five days left before capture: “I still have an optimistic view of the situation; if we can hold the Army fast all will be well.”
The Extracurricular Activities of Tom Barry
Another thorn in Lynch’s side was Tom Barry. P.J. Ruttledge, a prominent member of the Mayo IRA who spent much of the Civil War by Lynch’s side, remembered the celebrated hero of the famous West Cork flying column as being “always very annoying to Liam Lynch.”
His renown seemingly gone to his bushy head, Barry would sneer at others for their lack of pluck, while simultaneously insisting that the war was lost and it was time to surrender. While not incorrect, his abrasive manner did him no favours, and neither did the discovery that the Free State, according to Ruttledge, granted Barry carte blanche to travel as he pleased in the hope that he would win others to his point of view.
Frank Aiken, an Armagh-born member of the IRA Executive, also remembered how “Mr. Barry’s activities at that time [February 1923] were a source of great worry to the then Chief of Staff”, and that Lynch had written to Aiken, complaining at how “Barry is doing his worst here.”
Barry was assisted in ‘his worst’ by Father Tom Duggan, a priest broadminded enough to have been a chaplain in the British Army despite his staunchly republican views. This forbearance helped make Father Duggan liked and trusted by everyone, with the notable exception of Lynch, who made it clear both to the priest and Barry that no backtracking on the Republic was going to happen on his watch.
To punctuate the point, he wrote a strongly-worded letter, ordering his subordinate to cease and desist in his crusade for peace. The headstrong, increasingly independent Barry was proving to be, in his own way, just as much a nuisance as Deasy’s letter of surrender.
But, unlike poor, beaten Deasy, Barry was not someone Lynch could just brush aside.
‘A Tirade of Abuse’
Lynch probably assumed that his letter would be the end of the matter; that is, until the door to his bedroom for the night was kicked open, startling both him and Andrews. The adjutant’s first thought at seeing the figure in the doorway, a lighted candle in one hand and a sheet of papers in the other, was that the Free Staters had found them at last.
Instead, it was an incandescent Barry. He was waving the letter while demanding to know if Lynch had written it. When Lynch gave the briefest of answers in the affirmative, the floodgates opened:
Then followed a tirade of abuse from Barry mainly directed at asserting the superiority of his fighting record. Barry’s peroration was dramatic: ‘I fought more in a week than you did in your life.’ Liam simply said nothing. Having emptied himself of indignation, Barry withdrew, slamming the door.
Andrews could not help but laugh. It all seemed too much like something out of a theatrical comedy.
The mood between Barry and his nominal superior had scarcely improved when they met later in Ballingeary. When Lynch, Andrews and Dr Lucey arrived, they found Barry and Father Duggan, along with several others, already present on the other side of the street. The tension was palatable and, once again, Andrews drew comparisons to fiction, the scene resembling to him “a Western film where rival groups of ranchers come into some cowtown to shoot out their differences.”
Thankfully, the proceedings did not become that bad but, by the time the two parties withdrew, nothing between them had been resolved. There was no change in IRA policy, contrary to what Barry and Father Duggan had been pushing for, so in that regard Lynch had had his way – for now.
A Republican Itch
Barry’s frustrations did not stop him from being a consummate professional when called upon. Travelling on board a lorry with Lynch and his entourage to the Executive conclave, to be held once again in Co. Tipperary, Barry impressed Andrews with his care and dedication as he dismounted at every crossroads in order to ensure there were no ambushes-in-waiting. The mood inside the vehicle was a jovial one, the others amused at Barry’s take-charge attitude.
After stopping for the night, Lynch allowed a sickly-looking and careworn Andrews to stay behind. Like Deasy, Andrews had developed the ‘Republican itch’ or scabies, an infliction which Lynch remained serenely untouched by despite the two men sharing a bed. Quietly relieved at being spared a journey over the Knockmealdown Mountains, with the inevitable hell it would play on his sores, Andrews made no complaint and gratefully accepted the five-pound note Lynch handed him for expenses.
Before they separated for the last time, he and Lynch were able to enjoy one last chat. Lynch made it clear that he had not wanted the Executive meeting. He had not even wanted the Republican government-in-exile that the Anti-Treatyites had set up. Both bodies posed the danger that they would force some kind of compromise peace, the very last thing Lynch would ever agree to. Not that he was overly concerned, assuming as he did that whatever doubts and dissensions thrown his way would be brazened out.
Then Lynch dropped a bombshell. Andrews, he said, was to be assigned to take change of the West, where he was resting his hopes for a republican comeback. Having never held as much as a modest command nor even crossed the Shannon, Andrews could not help but wonder what Lynch was thinking:
I suppose I should have been flattered that the Chief of Staff should have viewed me in these favourable terms; I always thought that he regarded me as a reliable dogsbody, agreeable and sometimes amusing. On reflection, I didn’t take his remarks too seriously, feeling sure that with second thoughts he would realize the absurdity of the idea or, if not, someone would surely point it out to him.
Or so Andrews hoped. O’Malley had been equally flummoxed when Lynch assigned him to the organisation of the IRA in Ulster and Leinster, areas that he, like Andrews and the West, felt entirely unsuited for. Promoting people outside their comfort zones was clearly something of a habit for Lynch. Perhaps he saw only the best in them. Alternatively, he might have been lacking anyone else.
However, despite his perceived shortcomings, O’Malley had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Andrews might have done just as well, so Lynch’s instincts could have been correct at least on those occasions.
The Executive Meets
On the 23rd March, the IRA Executive assembled at Bliantas, west of the Nire Valley. Due to enemy presence, the attendees were obliged to move deeper into the Valley on the 25th, where they continued in Glenanore until the 26th. For all the difficulties, a reasonably sized number had managed to attend, such as Lynch, Barry, Tom Crofts, Seán MacSwiney, Humphrey Murphy, Bill Quirke and Seán Hyde.
Also there was de Valera, although it first had to be agreed whether he could sit in on the conclave. The President of the Republic waited outside until votes were taken for his admission, albeit without voting rights.
Nothing better illustrated de Valera’s powerlessness and failure to be anything other than a reluctant observer. When Lynch received word in February 1923 that the president was attempting to again use his ‘Document No. 2’ as an alternative to the Treaty, he wrote sharply, warning de Valera that “your publicity as to sponsoring Document No. 2 has had a very bad effect on army and should have been avoided.”
It was the same line Lynch had taken with Deasy: it was all great until you complained, and now everything wrong is your fault. He added cuttingly to de Valera: “We can arrange peace without reference to past documents.”
For all the degradation he had so far endured, de Valera made the most of his opportunity before the Executive, proposing certain terms with which peace with the Free State could be negotiated. To the surprise of no one, Lynch was adamantly opposed, as convinced as ever that victory was achievable.
According to one second-hand account who heard about the meeting afterwards: “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”
When Barry raised a motion that “in the opinion of the Executive, further armed resistance and operations against the F.S. Government will not further the cause of independence of the country”, it was defeated by six votes to five. Lynch had provided the deciding vote.
Back in the IRA Convention of June 1922, it had been Barry who had helped scupper Lynch’s plans for a reunification of the sundered IRA, the last ditch effort for a peaceful solution. Now Lynch had returned the favour.
Once again, Lynch had sidestepped the doubts of others and ensured that, by concluding on nothing, the meeting would make no difference to the war effort. But that so many were leaning towards some – any – kind of compromise meant that Lynch was not as in control of the Executive as he would have liked.
His own Deputy, Frank Aiken, openly agitated for de Valera’s suggestions in a foreshadowing of the political relationship to come. Austin Stack’s contribution was to argue for the IRA to stop fighting, but not to end the war per se, without explaining how these two opposing concepts could be met. It was typical of the disarray and confusion afflicting the anti-Treaty command.
“It proved impossible to reconcile the divergent views held by members of the Executive,” was how Florence O’Donoghue, Lynch’s friend and biographer, put it.
In a strange sense, history was repeating itself. Lynch had also struggled to rein in his Executive in the months leading up to the Civil War. The main difference was that then he had been regarded as unduly moderate, a sell-out in the making. Now the roles had been reversed and it was Lynch who was rejecting any deviations from the straight and narrow, regardless of what others wanted.
Waiting for Miracles
For want of anything else to say, it was agreed to hold another Executive meeting for the 10th April. To many, this might have seemed like nothing more than the dragging out of the inevitable. For Lynch, it had bought enough time for the Western resurgence he had spoken about to Andrews to start making a difference.
Another iron in the fire was the field artillery Lynch was expecting. He had assigned Seán Moylan to the United States in November 1922 to act as a liaison officer with sympathetic Irish-American groups. The Americans were to raise the funds that would be passed on to Germany for the purchase and later transport of the weapons.
Lynch was specific in his requests – four mountain batteries of artillery, with four guns to a battery, and as much ammunition as could be bought. Lynch predicated to Moylan that these “would completely demoralise enemy and end the war,” envisioning how it would only take one such weapon, shared between the IRA, to do the trick.
Such was his certainty that he felt entitled to quibble over the cost. Professing himself surprised at how much money he was told would be needed, he instructed Moylan not to worry over quantity. After all, “a big cargo is not required; even a few, with sufficient shells, would finish up the business here.”
In the end, none of these miracle weapons ever appeared. Neither did the all-conquering legions from the West. Perhaps these failures would have finally convinced Lynch of the hard truth before him. Perhaps not.
In the fortnight before the next Executive conclave, Lynch took refuge in a number of safe-houses. The most impressive was a converted cowshed near Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, artfully designed for concealment:
The whole building was about thirty feet long and ten wide, with corrugated iron walls and a roof partly of thatch and partly of corrugated iron. Access to the hiding place was from inside the cow shed, so that no trace led to it from outside, and the entrance was so cleverly constructed in what was apparently the inside of the end wall that it could not be opened except by one who knew the secret.
In the meantime, Tom Derrig was captured in Dublin on the 6th April, during which he was shot and wounded in the jaw. “It is understood that the authorities attach a considerable importance to Mr Derrig’s arrest,” wrote the Irish Times, as well the authorities might, for Derrig marked the fourth loss of an IRA Executive member, after O’Malley, Deasy and Moloney.
In a move more humiliating than harmful, but no less damaging, captured minutes for the First Second Division and the Executive meetings were published on the 8th April. The discord inside the anti-Treaty leadership between the die-hards, such as Lynch, and those who had had enough, like Barry and de Valera, were now exposed for all to see.
Before departing from his converted cowshed, Lynch had the heel of his boot fixed. A leather strap was found and used to bind his papers together. With these final details seen to, he and his party set off with a few others towards the meeting.
The group of six – Lynch, Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen and Seán Hyes – reached the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, where they spent the night in a friendly house. At 4 am on the 10th April, the scouts posted outside alerted them to the presence of an enemy column on the road to nearby Goatenbridge, forcing them to relocate to another house higher up on the mountain of Crohan West.
When daylight came, the men looked down on the valley and saw that the Free Staters were now in sufficient numbers to form three columns. They were not overly concerned, assuming that the Pro-Treatyites were merely on a routine patrol and would soon pass by.
It was classic Lynch. He had been underestimating the opposite side and overestimating his own since day one. The IRA men were settling down for a cup of tea at 8 am when a sentry rushed in to tell them that one of the columns was heading directly for them.
On the Run
Seeking the high ground, the six men dashed towards Crohan West. With only two revolvers between them, Lynch sent word to the two scouts posted elsewhere to come and join them. One had a Thompson machine gun and the other a rifle, with the power and range to better their odds. While they waited at the head of the glen and with neither of the scouts yet to be seen, the Free Staters appeared over a rise.
As shots were exchanged, the Anti-Treatyites fell back towards Crohan West, taking advantage of the cover afforded by a shallow riverbed until they had no choice but to dash across open ground. Seizing their chance, the Free Staters fired at the exposed men as quickly as their rifles allowed from between three and four hundred yards away. Their targets shot back ineffectively with their revolvers, more to distract than out of any real hope of causing harm.
Lynch was already winded from the run, prompting Hydes to take him by the hand and hurry him along. The firing had abruptly ceased, as if both sides were holding their breath, when a single shot rang out. Lynch fell.
“My God! I’m hit, lads!” he cried.
Scarcely believing their foul luck, the others went to Lynch’s side. Seeing their targets grouping together, the Free Staters below renewed their volleys. With no time for anything else, the party carried their stricken leader, with one reciting, and Lynch repeating, the Act of Contrition. In terrible pain, his misery worsened by the motion, Lynch begged his companions several times to leave him behind, saying – an optimist to the end – that the Staters might be able to bandage him.
Finally, the other five let him down and made the harsh decision to do what he said. Pausing only to pick up his gun and the documents, they continued in their flight across the mountain until finally out of sight and range.
“It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Aiken later wrote. He could not even bring himself to say farewell to Lynch lest the moment be too much. None of them see a reason why Lynch alone had been hit other than the implacable, inscrutable will of God. It seemed to Aiken as good an explanation as any.
“I am Liam Lynch”
Forcing their way through the thick undergrowth of brushwood that provided the only cover on that bleak mountaintop, the forty green-coated soldiers pressed on uphill. They found a man lying face up, cushioned by some shrubbery, his clothes dark with blood.
“Are you de Valera?” one of the soldiers asked him.
“I am not,” the stricken man replied. He sounded more weary than anything else. “I am Liam Lynch.”
Lynch had not even been spared the final indignity of mistaken identity, being confused with someone he had regarded as a figurehead at best, a nuisance at worst. He spoke little else as his captors carried him down the mountain in a litter to the village of Newcastle, where a priest and a physician administrated some spiritual and medical aid respectively. A National Army doctor who arrived soon after found two bullet wounds on either side of the wounded man, between his rib cage and hip, caused by the same bullet tearing through.
When the two doctors agreed that their patient would have to be moved to better facilities, an ambulance drove Lynch to the military ward of St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel, where he died almost three hours later, just before 9 pm. Death was ruled to be a result of shock and haemorrhaging. He was twenty-nine.
Among Lynch’s last recorded statements was: “You missed Dev by a few minutes.”
Searching the area further, soldiers found in a nearby farmhouse an assortment of clothing items such as hats and coats. It was concluded that the anti-Treaty conference had been in the process of assembling, and that if the National Army had struck half an hour later, it might have caught more than the one man they did.
Still, it was no less a significant catch. “The death of Liam Lynch removes one of the most important – if he was not actually the most important – of the leaders of the Republican party,” wrote the Irish Times, which described him as “the most obstinate and unflinching of the Government’s opponents.”
“Poor Liam, God rest him,” wrote O’Malley from Mountjoy, two days later on the 12th April. While he was sure that Aiken would do well as the new Chief of Staff, Lynch had had:
…an intimate knowledge of the South and a general knowledge of the personnel in all areas which Aiken has not and would not have for another twelve months, so really there is no one fit to step into his shoes. It’s the biggest blow by far we have received.
The difference between the two men would become even more apparent by the end of the month, when Aiken, working in tandem with de Valera, signed an order for the suspension of hostilities, to take effect on the 30th April. Meanwhile, de Valera was opening negotiations with the Free State.
Even when this political outreach proved fruitless, Aiken showed no desire to return to the fighting. On the 24th May, he ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War at long last.
Aiken intended for this to be a respite, not a surrender. “They are quite wrong if they think they have heard the last of the IRA and the Irish Republic,” he wrote to Lynch’s brother on July 1923. Lynch would have been horrified all the same but Aiken, unlike his late predecessor, was able to differentiate between what he wanted and what was possible.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 340