John Morley was a worried man despite his recent elevation. He had just been appointed as Irish Chief Secretary, a role he was regarding with considerable dubiety. This he sought to assuage by a talk, on the 17th October 1892, with a man who had his ear to the ground of that troubled – and, from the point of view of many in the British Government, troublesome – quarter of the United Kingdom.
John Redmond was only too keen to respond to Morley’s urgent invitation and got straight to the point: “How do you regard the prospects of this winter?”
Not good, the Chief Secretary-to-be admitted. “If I can’t rule Ireland this winter with success, it means destruction.”
While Morley dismissed rumours of secret societies, he was all too aware of how politics on that island were of a tempestuous sort, fully capable of wrecking any public career – such as his – on its rocks. With that in mind, he was equally direct with Redmond: “Can you give me any hope on this point?”
Redmond could, while leaving the onus on Morley. “It depends on yourself,” he replied. “If you are thorough you can disarm hostility. In the first place, release the prisoners.”
“Do you mean the Dynamiters?” Morley asked, referring to the Fenian bombing campaign in England. While the minutes of this conversation do not convey tone, it is clear that Morley was hesitant about such a step but it was something Redmond felt strongly about, particularly if the other man wanted a quiet winter. “Amnesty – Amnesty – Amnesty!” he stressed, in case Morley missed it the first time.
As the conversation passed through a number of other topics, Morley expressed incredulity on one in particular while, in doing so, exposing the depths of his naivety:
Morley: Do you really want Home Rule?
Redmond: Certainly – genuine Home Rule.
Morley: Then don’t destroy our chances of giving it to you.
Redmond would show just how much he wanted Home Rule – of the genuine sort – by refusing to sit idly by for it to be granted. But it was not enough and the subsequent generation was to push him and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) aside, impatient to take rather than wait. All political careers may end in failure, but Redmond’s failed harder than most, leaving not so much a legacy as an embarrassment.
“The caricature of Redmond that has come down to us from the Sinn Féin-permeated political culture,” as historian Dermot Meleady puts it, has him as:
…out of touch with the Irish people and Irish culture, too much time spent in London, too trusting of British politicians, his tendency to ‘compliance’ where Parnell had embodied ‘defiance’.
The reader is invited to judge the truth of this image for themselves from this selection of correspondence, stretching four decades, from 1880, when Redmond first entered the political game, to his final year of 1918:
The letters in general are courteously businesslike in style and content, conveying in their neatness of handwriting and conciseness of style, a strong impression of self-discipline. Little emotion is revealed.
This stoicism served Redmond well during his tenure as IPP Chairman, buffeted as he was by one squall after another. No sooner had he been elected leader in 1900, in a move to bind the wounds of the Parnell Split, then he was faced with another feud that threatened to undo all the work of reuniting the Irish Party, this time between the prima donnas: William O’Brien and Timothy Healy.
“The only thing on which I am quite clear and which for me will involve the question of my membership of the Party,” O’Brien wrote to Redmond in November 1900, “is that the Convention ought specifically to direct Healy’s exclusion from the Party.”
O’Brien had his way in that regard, and the IPP began the following year by re-entering the Land Struggle as they agitated for land purchases, alongside the tactics of intimidation and boycotts, while staying short of violence. It was a delicate balance, and O’Brien’s push for an escalation alarmed Redmond, as it did his deputy, John Dillon.
This led to a three-way exchange of letters, as Redmond and Dillon strove to reign in their headstrong colleague. “I am…in complete agreement with you in thinking there is need at this moment for renewed activity,” Redmond told O’Brien soothingly. “What I differ from you is as to the means.”
Which was exactly Redmond’s style: calm, measured, in polite disagreement if need be while giving every impression that he was otherwise on your side. The emergence of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, a consequence of the Home Rule Crisis, put his powers of diplomacy to the test.
“I can assure you I am extremely anxious that we should come to some understanding,” he wrote to Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the armed new movement, on the issue of IPP personnel on its ruling body. It was a question of control, something which MacNeill was reluctant to surrender, but Redmond was nothing if not persistent.
“Why this moderate demand of ours was not conceded at once, I cannot understand,” he told MacNeill, rather passive-aggressively. “The present Committee [of the Irish Volunteers] is purely provisional, self-elected and includes no representative of the Irish Party.”
Between themselves, the IPP leaders were not overly impressed with their new rival. “My interview with MacNeill left me the impression that he is extremely muddle-headed,” complained Dillon. MacNeill showed some of his strain in a reply to Redmond: “I am sorry that I have not been able to make the position clear to you.”
When the tenuous peace between the political and the paramilitary cracked with the Volunteer split in September 1914, and the majority sided with the IPP, Redmond indulged in some uncharacteristic ‘tough talk’. The remnants of the Volunteers who had stayed with MacNeill’s faction were “to be fought vigorously and remorselessly by us, who believe in the constitutional movement and in Home Rule as a settlement of the Irish question.”
At the end, the Irish question would be settled, vigorously and remorselessly, by a very different set of tactics. When the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, Redmond was in London, cut off from the rapid turn of events, while Dillon did his best to relay news to his Chairman from the warzone.
“Dublin is full of the most extraordinary rumours,” he wrote on the Easter Sunday, the 23rd April. “What it is I cannot make out.”
By Wednesday, Dillon had made out a little more, if barely. “The situation here is terrible,” he lamented. “We are in absolute ignorance of what has been going on, beyond the fact that fierce fighting has been in progress in many parts of the city.”
While always engaging, the book turns particularly gripping from here, as the IPP struggled to come to terms with an Ireland that had been turned on its head by the end of the six days over Easter Week. Dillon provided the voice of reason, warning Redmond that the resulting executions would be a PR disaster, both for the British Government and themselves.
In that, he was entirely correct. The correspondence from then on presents a picture of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as the constitutional cause was rejected by the voters, first in a quartet of by-elections in 1917, and then in the 1918 General Election, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped off the political map.
Its erstwhile Chairman was dead by then, the victim of a heart attack in March 1918. “What a terrible thing that poor Redmond should be taken from his people just at this time,” T.P. O’Connor wrote as he commiserated with Dillon. “However, personally, I think that the inability of his heart to respond was not due to any other cause than that it was broken.”
Eagle-eyed readers with a keen memory will recall how, earlier in the book and the year 1895, Redmond had received a report assessing the state of the ‘Dynamiters’ held in Portland Prison, the same men on whose behalf he had lobbied John Morley. That Redmond wrote out the findings showed his abiding interest.
Health-wise, the inmates were a mixed bag. Duff – “Insane”, Dalton – “Sound in mind and body”, McDermot – “Ditto.” One in particular showed “symptoms of valvular disease” and indigestion but otherwise was also of “sound mind.” That mind belonged to a certain Tom Clarke, who went on to overturn everything his benefactor had been working on with the Easter Rising, twenty-one years later.
If history goes in cycles, then nowhere is that truer than of the Irish variety, where today’s heroes could become tomorrow’s failures, and the prisoners of now end up shaping the future; just one of the many lessons this book can provide.
Seán Milroy, governor of Mountoy Prison, was surprised at the sight of the latest inmate – a stout, elderly man – brought before him in his office. “Something very bad was wrong with him evidently,” Milroy noted. “He was extremely restless, moving his arms about in a jerky, spasmodic fashion, and rolling his eyes in an awful way.”
The prisoner’s name, when Milroy asked the warden in attendance, was John Redmond, who had been proving to be a bother, pacing up and down his cell while shouting slogans like: “Poor little Belgium! Charters of liberty! The Allies! The Empire. The Huns!”
As if to demonstrate, Redmond grew even more agitated in front of Milroy, yelling out: “Disgruntled cranks! Factionists! German gold!” and words to that effect.
This behaviour worsened as the warden tried calming him, and Milroy rang the bell on his desk for assistance. It was then that the ‘governor’ woke up from his daydream, his role-reversing fantasy of himself in the position of authority, with his political opponents humbled before him, and not, as he really was, a prisoner in Mountjoy.
At least Milroy – a “well-known Sinn Feiner”, according to a contemporary newspaper report – could take solace in that he was nearing the end of his three-month sentence, from June to September 1915, for “having used language likely to discourage recruiting for His Majesty’s Army” in a public speech. He did not record his time behind bars, spent in the company of like-minded prisoners such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows, until two years later, in 1917, by which time the country was in a very different state, indeed.
Nationalist Ireland had turned on itself, like Ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, one end consuming the other. It was now no longer necessary to imagine the degradation of Redmond, on whose shoulders the hopes of Irish self-rule had once rested. The mere sight of him as he left Trinity College, Dublin, in mid-1917, incited boos from the small crowd outside the front gate.
The jeers grew louder, as the hecklers followed Redmond up Westmoreland Street, prompting some civic-minded passers-by to form a protective ring around the beleaguered politician. Even so, it was only after he hurried inside the first building to hand for refuge that the danger could be said to have passed.
“I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to Redmond,” remembered one witness, “I would have joined in.” To sixteen-year-old Todd Andrews and many others in Sinn Féin, Redmond was “the epitome of politicians in general, and all politicians were regarded as low, dirty and treacherous.”
It was not for want of trying on Redmond’s part. On the 7th March 1917, he and rest of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tried to break the impasse over Home Rule, its long-cherished project, when T.P. O’Connor, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Scotland, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on that august assembly “without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised.”
David Lloyd George declined. Or rather, the Prime Minister declared that Home Rule was there for the parts of Ireland which wanted it. But, in regards to the remainder, those who were Irishmen in name while being, as he put it, “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen” – no, Home Rule was not something he would force on them.
These ‘alien’ exceptions were the Unionists, who had shifted from opposing Home Rule in its entirety to demanding that various counties be given the option of remaining outside the jurisdiction of any new Dublin parliament, answerable only to the one at Westminster, just as before. As these Unionists were concentrated largely in Ulster, such allowances would amount in practice to the exclusion of those six counties in the north-east corner of the island.
Perfect from the Ulster Unionists’ point of view but political suicide for Redmond should this Partition happen on his watch. Unfortunately for the Irish Party, such passions were beyond the ability of Englishmen to relate to.
“We often cut up counties in England without engaging in civil war,” Harold Spender, a pro-Home Rule journalist, wrote to Redmond on the 29th March 1917. “There is no divine law against moving a county landmark.”
Divine law or not, that even a sympathetic individual like Spender could be so obtuse did not bode well for the IPP’s chances of rallying enough support to halt Partition. Yet all its MPs could do was try their best.
(Not) Answering the Irish Question
When T.P. O’Connor dined with Lloyd George on the 22nd January 1917, his lobbying made little headway. To O’Connor’s dismay, the Prime Minister appeared to have spared Home Rule little thought beforehand, being content with Partition as the only credible solution. He was more interested in the possibility of conscription for Ireland in order to solve the need for manpower on the Western Front, a policy which O’Connor was keen to stress as a debacle in the making.
While Lloyd George continuously reassured O’Connor, over the course of their meal together, of his desire to remain on tight terms with his Irish allies, his actions were to fall short of his words, especially if they risked offending the Ulster Unionist presence in Parliament.
Not that Redmond could afford to give up. “I hope you will read this as it is from a friend,” wrote his brother, William, to the Prime Minister, on the 4th March 1917, three days before their showdown in Westminster. The MP for East Clare began with an attempt to rekindle warm memories: “When you entered the House I was then an old member. We fought many battles on the same side.”
As the letter went on, a slight edge of pleading crept in:
I do not want anything from you but this – to settle the Irish question – you are strong enough. Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain.
William Redmond ended with a stark warning: “If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.”
“There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” Lloyd George wrote back two days later, on the 6th March. After all, as he pointed out: “I was elected to the House purely as a Home Rule candidate…and I have voted steadily for Home Rule ever since.”
Which was true enough. But he clearly did not feel the same urgency as William Redmond, nor thought the matter as simple to solve as the other man seemed to: “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question, and if any man can show me a way out of that I should indeed be happy.”
In other words: my hands are tied, so too bad.
Miracles and the Lack of
Appropriately enough, after his efforts in private had been exhausted, it was William Redmond who publicly made the case before Parliament for immediate and unconditional Home Rule. He looked every bit his fifty-five years, much of which had been spent in the service of his country.
“Major Redmond’s hair is white now, and he has lost much of his boyish air,” wrote one observer. “The war has deeply lined his face, and his eyes are more deeply set than in his political swashbuckling days.”
Dressed in khaki, as befitting his rank of major in the British Army, he had stood to second T.P. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th March. To Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, “that debate will always be remembered by those who heard it for one speech” and that was William Redmond’s.
At a length of half an hour, his piece was a relatively short one by the standards of the chamber. In place of the quantity of words, however, William Redmond made up for in quality. Dark and bitter mistakes had been made in the past, and not all on one side, he conceded, but there was no point in brooding on the past.
Instead, he appealed directly to Edward Carson to meet with his Nationalist opposites – for the sake of the future and for the Irishmen who were, even now, fighting and dying together in the same trenches – so they could come to some arrangement on the basis of self-government for their shared island.
If safeguards were what the Ulster Unionists wanted, then Redmond promised to go to any lengths necessary to reassure them, even if that included – he suggested tantalisingly – the acceptance of a Prime Minister from Ulster to head the first Irish Government.
While there were other speeches that day, William Redmond’s was the one that counted as far as many were concerned. O’Connor could hear the heavy breathing of his fellow MPs seated around him, while others who watched from the gallery – so he was told afterwards – were so overcome with emotion that they wept and sobbed unabashedly.
Gwynn was similarly awed. “It was a speech, in short, that made one believe in impossibilities,” as he put it, “but in Parliament no miracles happen.”
When it was clear to the chamber that Lloyd George was no closer than before in supporting an all-Ireland settlement, with Ulster included, John Redmond rose to deliver the piece de resistance of the day. The Prime Minister, he declared, had brought Ireland face to face with revolution. From now on, the country would have to be governed with an unsheathed sword and, as such, it was pointless to continue the debate.
And, with that, reported the Irish Times:
The Nationalists cheered to the echo as their leader left his seat and stalked majestically down the gangway, and along the floor of the House. They followed him, shouting and jeering as they went, while members looked on with serious faces.
If nothing else, the Irish Party still knew how to make an exit. Not that it made any real difference.
When O’Connor and Joe Devlin, the MP for West Belfast, met Lloyd George later in the month, on the 28th March, time had done nothing to change the Prime Minister’s mind. “LG says that the Orangemen still insist on the 6 counties and was hopeless of getting them to move from that position,” O’Connor reported to John Redmond. “We told him he ought to deny them; he says he could not.”
Despite the uphill struggle they faced, O’Connor still kept the faith. “If [Lloyd George] persists in his whole 6-county proposal,” he told Redmond on the 1st April 1917, “he will fail ignominiously for we can tear such a proposal to tatters in the House of Commons.”
Perhaps, but Ireland was no longer waiting to give its representatives that chance.
‘A More Reasonable Outlook’
William Redmond’s celebrated performance in Parliament turned out to be his swansong. “We deeply regret to learn that Major William H.K. Redmond, MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment,” reported the Irish Times on the 11th June 1917, three months later, “was killed in action on the 7th inst. in the brilliant and successful attack on the Ridge of Messines.”
The uniform William Redmond had worn while in the House of Commons had been no pose. Nor was his plea for reconciliation between Nationalist and Unionist Ireland anything less than sincere. That Irish soldiers from the two traditions could fight together in the same trenches was proof enough, to him, that a better, happier future was possible together.
True, differences remained – William Redmond was not so naïve as to think otherwise. “The soldier in France who was a home ruler at home probably remains so,” he admitted, writing publicly in May 1917. “The Ulster soldier who disapproved of home rule probably does so still”:
But the meeting of men of diverse opinions in the field has undoubtedly created an atmosphere of friendliness which must make it easier to adjust differences and which should induce a more reasonable outlook upon things at home.
When William Redmond returned to his regiment in France, in time for the push towards a German strongpoint near Messines, his main fear was that he would be held back from the Front on account of his age.
“He felt absolutely miserable at the prospect of being kept behind,” remembered an army chaplain for the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “He had used every influence with General [William Bernard] Hickie to get over the top with the men”:
He spoke in the most feeling manner of what awaited the poor fellows, and longed to share their sufferings and their fate.
In that regard, he was to have his wish. When permission was given for him to join the firing-line, he informed a fellow Irish officer “with real delight and boyishness in his voice”, to the other man’s wonder: “I have never seen anyone so pleased as he was.”
For his older brother, it was a particularly wounding blow. “The loss of him meant to John Redmond a loss of personal efficiency,” wrote Gwynn. “Sorrow gave a strong grip to depression on a brooding mind which had always a proneness to melancholy.” For William had been more than a sibling to John, but a counsellor too, and perhaps the sole one:
He had who temperamentally shared his own point of view. Willie Redmond was the only man who could break through his brother’s constitutional reserve and could force him into discussion. In the months that were to come such a man was badly needed.
John Redmond’s melancholia-prone mind had already been brooding for quite some time. “Redmond is very depressed,” wrote T.P. O’Connor to John Dillon, on the 18th May 1916. “He seems to be tired out and sick of the whole position and has again and again referred to the possibility of his retiring from politics.”
Dillon, for his part, did not bother so much with sympathy. “It is touch and go whether we can save the movement and keep the Party in existence,” the MP for East Mayo admitted to O’Connor on the 19th August 1916. “A great deal depends on the extent to which the Chairman realises the position and on what his intentions as to the future are.” That “on these points I am to a large extent in the dark” did not bode well for saving their life’s work.
A month later, on the 26th September 1916, Dillon was even more frank to O’Connor: “Enthusiasm and trust in Redmond and the Party is dead [underlined in original text] so far as the mass of the people is concerned.”
A speech Redmond made in Waterford, in October 1916, promising a tougher line in the future, gave the Constitutional cause fresh drive, as even the habitually glum Dillon agreed. To him, the speech was “all that could be desired, and it will do an incalculable amount of good. It has already had an immense effect on the country.”
There would no further negotiations with the British Government, Redmond had declared, only a demand for the release of those interned since the Easter Rising, a call for General Maxwell – his work long done in suppressing sedition – to be withdrawn from the country, and a firm resistance to any possibility of conscription in Ireland.
After months of political deadlock, with their elected representatives appearing no more than hostages to fate, this bold new stance, in Dillon’s opinion, “took the country by surprise, and produced a great wave of reaction in favour of his leadership and of the Party. If that attitude is resolutely adhered to the country will come all right.”
Dead Cat Bounce
If, if, if…
The great wave of reaction had receded by the start of 1917, leaving the Party as stranded as a beached whale. A by-election drubbing in North Roscommon in February – the first of the wins to Sinn Féin that year – was enough to plunge Redmond into a crisis of faith.
In a letter intended for the Party followers, Redmond acknowledged the fork on the road to which they had come. If North Roscommon was an abnormality, “a freak election, due to…momentary passion” over how the winner, Count Plunkett, had had a son executed after the Rising, then that was all well and good. But, on the other hand, should the result represent “a change of principle of policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people,” then the entire future of the Constitutional cause, the raison d’être of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had just been questioned…and found wanting.
If so, then Redmond was prepared to give way graciously: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men if they so choose.”
Thankfully for his colleagues, whose careers were hanging in the balance, Redmond was persuaded against publishing the letter. But not even a close confidant like William Redmond was immune to defeatism, as he privately urged his brother that they and all their MPs step down to make room for younger men.
It was, in Gwynn’s view, “a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party” on the part of the Irish people. This was not merely hindsight speaking, for shortly after South Longford, a second suggestion was made that the Party MPs resign their seats en masse and allow the country to decide on the choice before it: the constitutional way or…the other way.
Again, Redmond was adamantly against such a step down, as Gwynn described: “He said that it would be a lack of courage: that one or two defeats should not turn us from our course.”
That is, if their course could still be taken. No outlet had argued harder for the IPP candidate than the Longford Leader. In the wake of bitter rejection, however, the newspaper could predict only one end for its political patrons:
It cannot be doubted that in a few years Ireland will have recovered from the present fitful fever, and see the error of its present course, but in the meantime the Irish National Party and programme will be probably a thing of the past, and the people will have only the empty husks of Sinn Féin left.
That such a probability had come about at all was a source of shocked wonder to the Longford Leader, but it did not pretend to see any other. Neither did the IPP itself, not even at its top. “[John Redmond] does not seem to me to realise the situation any more than he did in the winter of 1915-1916,” Dillon wrote cuttingly to T.P O’Connor in November 1917. Come a general election, he predicted, and then “there will be nothing left in Ireland except Republican separatists and Ulster loyalists,” with the IPP confined to history.
He got that right.
Return to Ireland
For some, the day that the IPP was a thing of the past could not come soon enough. When John Redmond warned Westminster that revolution was a-stir in Ireland, he had not been indulging in hyperbole, the proof of which was on full display in Dublin on the Monday morning of the 18th June 1917.
“It was apparent to most citizens when they came within the heart of the city for their day’s business that there was something unusual astir,” wrote the Irish Times, adding sniffily: “The main streets were occupied by people who were not usually abroad at 10 a.m.”
Marching from Westmoreland Station and up Great Brunswick Street came a procession of young men and women, who made their Sinn Féin sympathies clear with the tricoloured flags they waved, the songs they sung, and the group of men in their midst: the one hundred and twenty or so rebel POWs taken during the Easter Rising, newly released from English captivity by a general amnesty.
Onwards over O’Connell Bridge, they crossed into Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the place in which it had all began, and where the sight of the still-ruined General Post Office and other bullet-scarred buildings was enough to inspire a fresh burst of enthusiasm in the crowd. A squad of policemen shadowed the parade, carefully keeping their distance, but no incident occurred as the freed men continued on to Gardiner’s Row, inside Fleming’s Hotel for breakfast and a long-anticipated rest.
As they ate, one of their number, Seán O’Mahony, stepped out to address the adoring young acolytes waiting on the street. This, he told them, was far from the end of what had begun on the Easter Week of 1916, over a year ago but still fresh in Irish memories. He affirmed they were still fighting for the same tricoloured flag under which they had done so already in the Rising, for they believed in actions, not words, and would soon resume the great work that had already begun.
After their rest, the released men resumed their march to the offices in Exchequer Street of the National Aid Association, set up to help alleviate their financial needs, and then to the Mansion House, followed all the way by the multitudes. Such was the press of bodies and the heat that one of the former prisoners fainted.
The day’s display complete, the men went their separate ways, at least for now. Some hurried to catch the evening trains back to their homes in the country, while others continued to be the centres of attention as the celebrations continued in Dublin. “Whenever a released Sinn Feiner, or anyone remotely suspected of being one, was observed, cheers were often raised,” reported the Irish Times.
With their close-cropped hair and conservatively-trimmed beards, it was hard to tell who was who among the freed men. Eoin MacNeill was known to be present, as was W.T. Cosgrave, along with Count Plunkett and Joe McGuinness, the two MPs elected earlier that year on behalf of Sinn Féin for North Roscommon and South Longford respectively.
Worthy names, all, but the most notable one was Éamon de Valera, he who had been in command at Boland’s Mill and now continued to be so over his comrades, as demonstrated earlier that day at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] Pier, when they had first lined up on the boat-deck before crossing the gangway in formation, two by two, on de Valera’s order.
His authority continued to be felt throughout the day. “There appeared to be an arrangement amongst the prisoners not to express their opinions publicly in regard to their treatment in prison,” noted the Irish Times. When asked about that, the men merely said that any official statement was to come from de Valera.
Choices and Omens
It was a name that would soon be on everyone’s lips, for the parliamentary seat of East Clare now lay open with William Redmond’s death, and Sinn Féin was determined to capitalise on its previous two electoral wins by adding a third. The lesson of South Longford was that Joe McGuinness had succeeded, not despite his penal status, but because of it, for Easter Week conferred nobility on a man like nothing else in the eyes of the Irish public.
The choice of another prisoner to contest East Clare was thus essential. Arthur Griffith had been making the case to the Central Election Committee for Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. But, in that, the President of Sinn Féin stood alone. MacNeill’s fateful attempt to cancel the Rising before it could begin, with his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, was too well remembered.
“I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us,” Tom Clarke had instructed his wife, Kathleen, during their final time together in Kilmainhaim Jail while awaiting his execution. “He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country.”
Not all shared this unforgiving view, but none of the Election Committee besides Griffith were about to risk such a controversial choice. De Valera seemed a far safer bet, being already regarded as the leader of the Irish POWs while they were held in Lewes Prison. But, as he and the others had not yet been released, it was unknown if he would accept the nomination if offered. The decision was thus deferred to a later date, and the Sinn Féin activists already sent to East Clare would just have to work without a name in the meantime.
Not that this presented too much of a problem for Dan MacCarthy, the mastermind behind the previous electoral win. If South Longford had been a battlefield in more than the political sense, with riots, stone-throwing and beatings throughout the campaign, then the next constituency was a pleasant surprise to MacCarthy: “I found the people generally more sympathetic than in Longford and I felt that this was a good omen for our cause.”
The speech he gave at Berefield Church, after the priest introduced him from the altar to the congregation, allowed him to gauge the public mood, which appeared to be a positive one. As for the identity of the man on whose behalf MacCarthy was in Clare: “Various rumours went round as far as we were concerned. One time we heard it was Peadar Clancy [another 1916 participant], and the next Eoin MacNeill, and finally it transpired to be de Valera.”
Roads to Take or Not to Take
The decision was not an easy one to make, not least because de Valera had been wrestling with it himself even as he took his first step back on Irish soil. Politics was a field utterly new to him, and one he regarded with some trepidation. When news had reached the Lewes inmates in April 1917 that one of their number, Joe McGuinness, was being nominated to run in the South Longford contest, de Valera was among those against any such forays in the electoral sphere.
Instead, the “safest course for us and in the long run the wisest is to continue as soldiers,” he wrote to a friend on the outside. “The Irish Volunteers…must be kept a permanent force at the country’s back…and we must allow nothing to make us forget it.”
Victory in South Longford made de Valera and many of the others in Lewes revaluate their standoffishness where non-military methods were concerned. After all, the main issue for de Valera, as he explained in a letter to a friend, was not that politics was wrong, but that it was a gamble. “I for one would have to be almost certain of success before I would risk such a stake,” he wrote [underlined in original text].
Success seemed much more likely now, with two by-election wins under Sinn Féin’s belt, but de Valera was still weighing the options by the time of the general release. Patrick McCartan, a long-time Republican activist, found him in a pensive mood on board the ship taking the former prisoners to Dublin.
“Mr de Valera had already been selected to contest County Clare in the Republican interest. He said he knew nothing about politics and did not like them,” McCartan wrote later. “He believed he could do the best work for Ireland by confining his attention to the organisation of the Irish Volunteers.” Having canvassed in South Longford, McCartan had a more contemporary view of the public mood in Ireland and counselled de Valera to wait and see it for himself before committing.
The enthusiastic reception in Dublin was evidently enough for de Valera, and he decided without further ado to stand for East Clare. There were still finishing touches to be done: as de Valera was not actually a member of the party he was to represent, a session of the O’Rahilly Cumann was quickly convened in Pembroke, Dublin, to wave him in.
Even with that settled, another problem reared its head: the MacNeill one. While some wanted him kept away from East Clare, if not drummed out of the movement altogether, de Valera made it clear that the other man’s presence on the campaign was a condition of his own running. In the teeth of opposition, de Valera had his way, and not for the last time, in what was to be an extraordinary career.
Still, resentments simmered. De Valera and MacNeill were seated together on the train to Ennis, along with a number of other Sinn Féin activists, when Countess Markievicz entered. Sighting MacNeill, she gave him a piece of her mind, prompting the harried man to take his leave for another carriage. He was brought back by de Valera, who was having none of such unseemly displays.
“There must be no recriminations,” he told the others sternly. That brought a measure of calm to the journey, if not quite peace, for the MacNeill controversy, and what it meant for Sinn Féin as a whole, would linger on for the better part of the year.
Kathleen Clarke’s War
For Kathleen Clarke, these gestures of solidary towards a man she considered the worst sort of blackguard was one more reason to be troubled by the direction the revolutionary movement, for which her husband had laid down his life, was taking. “When I heard that de Valera had insisted on MacNeill accompanying him to Clare, it confirmed my fears” about what she considered “the demoralising influence of elections.”
Participating in the British parliamentary system was a contentious practice in Ireland. First Charles Parnell, followed by John Redmond, had made it the centre-piece of their drive for Irish self-rule, but true-blue Republicans like Kathleen and Tom Clarke regarded playing the enemy’s game with suspicion, even hostility.
“I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it,” Tom Clarke had told Seán Mac Diarmada nine years earlier, in 1908. After acting as campaign organiser for Sinn Féin’s unsuccessful foray in the North Leitrim by-election, Mac Diarmada had returned to Dublin to merrily recount the cut and thrust of the contest to his friend.
Tom had listened to him in sombre silence before bringing the other man back down to earth. “Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks,” he had scolded. A chastened Mac Diarmada promised to never again besmirch their cause like so.
Eleven years later, and Sinn Féin was trying again, except with far grander ambitions than a single seat, and packing the clout to succeed this time, much to Kathleen Clarke’s dismay. To her, the only way forward was with the gun. All else was a distraction in her mind, but it appeared that now, with efforts now diverted into electioneering, “we might say goodbye to any more fighting.”
And that simply would not do.
She made an exception for South Longford in May 1917 – Joe McGuinness was an Easter Rising alumni, after all – and after rallying some of the other women bereaved by the Rising, such as Áine Ceannt and Margaret Pearse, Clarke threw herself into this new battle. And a battle it could be in a literal sense. While driving back into Longford town after a rally, her car and those of the others in the group were met with a hail of missiles from IPP partisans.
Being at the head of the convoy, along with the Count and Countess Plunkett, Clarke’s vehicle bore the brunt of the deluge. The Countess suffered a bloody nose from a thrown bottle, while Clarke just about escaped worse, thanks to the hard hat she was wearing, when a rock struck her head. “The only injury done was to my feelings,” she recalled. “I was mad enough to want to throw stones back at them.”
This was not an isolated incident. The lane the Sinn Féiners had to take to the hotel that served as their headquarters was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ because, as Clarke put it, “every time we passed it stones and bottles came flying out at us.”
Laying the Cards on the Table
Despite the success at South Longford, Clarke remained dissatisfied, one of the many reasons being her antipathy towards those who were reaping most of the gains, however undeservedly. “After the Rising the press, alluding to it, called it a Sinn Féin Rising. This was not correct; the organisation then called Sinn Féin was not a revolutionary one, and it had been very nearly defunct.”
Such misnaming conveyed instant benefits to some: “The fact that the Rising was now being called a Sinn Féin rising gave Arthur Griffith his chance, one he was quick to seize.” This despite how “the Sinn Féin which grew out of the Rising was a totally different one from that which had been in existence before the Rising.”
If Griffith was suspect, then MacNeill was contemptible. Assuming de Valera had simply not been informed of his responsibility for the countermand, Clarke decided to enlighten him with an invitation to her house in Dundrum, Dublin, for both him and MacNeill, on the 28th July 1917. When they arrived, Clarke was ready with her case for the prosecution:
I told him of the instructions I had received from Tom in Kilmainhaim Jail, that MacNeill must not be permitted to come back into the National life of the country again, for if he was he would in a crisis again act treacherously. I had promised to carry out these instructions if I could.
The sole reason she was hesitating to do just that, she explained, was because of his arrest following the Rising, which bestowed on him a credibility she could not touch. Having said that, she continued:
Circumstances might still tie my hands, and I might not be able to carry out my promise to my husband, but the story of his treachery would not die with me, that I would write it and leave it as documentary proof against him.
And, with that, the interview mercifully drew to an end, Clarke having laid down the gauntlet to MacNeill. De Valera had listened attentively throughout while keeping – the consummate politician already – his thoughts to himself.
Clarke would have been even less thrilled if she knew how close her béte noire had become with the rising star of Sinn Féin. Since their release from Lewes Prison, the two men had been conversing a good deal, and MacNeilll was pleased to learn that the other’s worldview was broadly in line with his own. For the likes of Clarke, it was the Republic or nothing, while MacNeill had only scorn for those “obsessed with the notion that some sort of sacred principle underlay the Republican ideal.”
MacNeill took a more libertarian view. For him, “real freedom consisted in the power to do your own things in your own way and not in any paper definition or a constitutional formula.”
He was careful not to appear too broad-minded, however. When asked for his opinion on which independence policy to pursue, he was as happy as anyone to declare in favour of a Republic, though more out of pragmatism than any deep-seated commitment, as he put it:
It was a matter of comparative indifference for the time what form this independence ought to take so far as I knew there was no practical prospect of setting up an Irish monarchy, and the alternative was an Irish Republic.
In private discussions with de Valera, shortly before the pair set off for East Clare, MacNeill came to believe that the other man “was no more than I was myself, a doctrinaire republican.” Nonetheless, de Valera could appreciate the emotional value of a bold approach, and “urged on me…that the demand for an Irish Republic would present a stronger appeal to the electorate and the public than anything else less definite.”
And so, on that agreed basis, “we fought the Clare Election as Republicans without any qualifications” and won by a steep majority.
Winning the Argument
That by-election, and the subsequent one for Kilkenny City a month later, in August 1917, put MacNeill in the front-line for the struggle for Ireland’s soul. He was assisted in this by Dan MacCarthy, the Sinn Féin Director of Elections, who, having honed his craft in South Longford and East Clare, knew how to run a tight ship. “His method was very thorough and efficient,” MacNeill noted approvingly:
All of us who were understood to be engaged in the work were supplied, each one, with his own programme for the day, handed to him that morning or the evening before. He was told who was to accompany him, to what places he was to go, and what particular person he was to interview.
Under MacCarthy’s direction, MacNeill was dispatched to court “the hard chaws, old unionists and stiff supporters of the Parliamentary Party”, perhaps because, as a former college professor, he would present a reassuringly respectable emissary, as well as one who could handle himself in a debate. When a local worthy in Kilkenny posed to him if it was honourable for one who had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the British monarch to support an Irish Republic, MacNeill asked if he had MPs or army officers in mind.
Both, was the reply.
Thinking quickly on his feet, MacNeill took each point in turn. With regard to the first, he drew on the case of the 1689 rebellion, when James II had been overthrown in favour of the current line of succession, so what worth was an oath there? As for the second, he simply, but effectively, pointed to the example of George Washington.
“I had the best of the argument but,” MacNeill conceded, “I do not think I got the vote.”
Not that it mattered too much, as Sinn Féin won the seat by another landslide. That made four straight defeats for the once-almighty IPP. Flushed with success and warmed by the camaraderie of the campaign-trail, Sinn Féin enjoyed its halcyon days, which were to make for some bittersweet memories when MacNeill looked back on them.
“The spirit of good order and good humour that animated the whole body of adherents of Sinn Féin at that time,” he wrote, “offers a strange contrast to what was experienced after 1921.”
The latter, who had had one son executed after the Rising and with another two in prison, “was impatient of temperate men or means.” If Plunkett blew hot, then Griffith, in contrast:
Sat there like a sphinx, square and solid, like a man of granite, lacking charm – physically or mentality. Griffith had a mind of ice that could freeze Irish histrionic champagne solid. He was the one cold fact in a sea of fantasy.
Which earned him few friends, particularly among the Irish Volunteers, many of whom “disliked and scorned him.” Proof of such feelings soon manifested on the platform in the form of Plunkett’s undisguised anger at the other man, and only a disruption in the audience – when Volunteers on standby manhandled journalists scribbling away in their notebooks, thinking them to be police detectives – gave enough of a break in the proceedings for a truce between Griffith and Plunkett for the rest of the event.
But it seemed only a matter of time before another confrontation and maybe not one that could be so easily dispelled. If the ideal of the Republic was what held the movement together, it could also, conversely, tear it asunder, and Griffith was reluctant to move in too dramatic a direction, lest the ‘middle ground’ of Irish opinion be alienated just when Sinn Féin was poised to win it over.
With that in mind, Sinn Féin activists in the East Clare election were warned to avoid mentioning the Republic to prospective voters…that is, until their candidate publicly declared for such a goal. The listeners roared their approval at de Valera’s words to the extent that “it was a considerable time before he could resume his speech,” recalled one witness, who was aware of what certain others in the party really thought:
The Sinn Féin members of the election committee were very annoyed, but they were not prepared to come to grips with de Valera, and, if his action was commented upon at a committee which followed the public were not aware of any disagreement.
Another insider present in East Clare, the trade unionist William O’Brien, noted how:
In the course of the election campaign, there was a very sharp division between the speakers. De Valera proclaimed his objective to be the Republic, stating that personally that was the only objective he could stand for. Griffith, Milroy and others took the point of view of the old Sinn Féin organisation.
And yet, despite such differences, de Valera and Griffith seemed to get along on a personal level, far better, in any case, than the latter did with the likes of Count Plunkett or Kathleen Clarke. De Valera, Griffith confided to friends during the course of the Clare election, was to be the future leader of Sinn Féin. As well as being younger, Griffith said in another talk, de Valera was a soldier – no small virtue in the current times – and had, in his opinion, all the makings of a statesman.
Which gave some hope for an amiable resolution that would allow Sinn Féin to move forward – that is, if nothing too disastrous struck in the meantime.
That something almost occurred over Kilkenny, with MacNeill as the trigger, when a by-election was announced upon the death of its MP, Pat O’Brien, in July 1917. Despite the lingering controversy over his countermanding order, MacNeill enjoyed a measure of support in Sinn Féin’s grassroots, such as in the Kilkenny Club which wrote to the Dublin headquarters in favour of nominating him to run.
When the Central Executive replied that it would prefer W.T. Cosgrave, whose CV as a Rising combatant and former prisoner made him a more comfortable choice, “we received an indignant reply that they were not to be dictated to by Dublin and they were sending a deputation to Mr MacNeill asking him to stand.”
So remembered Tommy Dillon. As son-in-law to Count Plunkett, Dillon was able to sit in on Executive meetings and so understood the strength of feeling to be found there. While he had nothing personal against MacNeill, certainly not to the extent that Clarke did, he was aware of how “the leaders of the anti-MacNeill group were…influential and the possibility of factions arising could not be ignored” should the question be pushed too far.
It was with this danger in mind that Dillon hurriedly cycled to Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, shortly after the last testy message from Kilkenny, to head off the threatened deputation. Upon reaching the hotel, he was told that the Kilkenny visitors had already left and so he rode on to where he guessed they had gone: the house in Rathfarnham where MacNeill was residing:
When I arrived at the house, a taxi stood in the front grounds. I asked for [MacNeill] and was told that he was engaged. James [MacNeill’s brother], however, brought him out to me and when I told him the object of my visit he said that the Kilkenny deputation was with him, that he understood the situation and that he was about to refuse their invitation.
MacNeill made no mention in his memoirs of this deputation or of Dillon’s last minute intervention. It is possible to suspect, if one were to be cynical, that MacNeill may not have been ‘about to refuse’ like he said, which Dillon did him the favour of believing. Sinn Féin was able to proceed smoothly in Kilkenny, with Cosgrave on its ticket, to score another unambiguous win.
But it could not be ‘touch and go’ for the movement indefinitely, and the upcoming Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, set for October 1917 at the Mansion House, Dublin, seemed the best opportunity to finally bury the hatchet over who ordered what for Easter Week. Which was what some dreaded. A few days beforehand, Countess Markievicz visited Kathleen Clarke’s house in Dundrum to ask her to oppose MacNeill should he be nominated for the new Executive.
Having been ‘advised’ – as she put it – by some against such an act, Clarke declined, while warning the Countess that if she was to lead the anti-MacNeill charge herself, she would do so alone. Never one to be deterred by the odds, Markievicz waited for the Árd Fheis to open and then “stood up and attacked [MacNeill] on the question of the secret countermanding orders.”
To Clarke’s dismay:
Her attack got such a bitterly hostile reception that despite my decision not to support her, I got up and did so. It seemed to me that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.
The moderates had their way, and MacNeill was duly voted to the Executive. Sinn Féin had come a long way since its conception in 1905, to the extent that one of the delegates, Áine Ceannt – widow of the 1916 martyr – wondered out loud if the proceedings should be classed as the first Árd Fehis of a totally new organisation. All the same, it was decided to stick with it being the sixth such event for a continuous Sinn Féin – why bring in unnecessary complications, after all?
For things were complicated enough as they were. The Sinn Féin delegate for South Mayo, Patrick Moylett, had attended a secret meeting of the Irish Volunteers on the evening before the Árd Fheis. Handed to him was a list of names who were to have his vote when proposed for election to the Sinn Féin Executive.
An indignant Moylett replied:
…that if I were to act on his instruction I would be defranchising [sic] the people who sent me and not doing my duty to them. I objected to the fact that in a democratic institution I should be told how I was to vote.
Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were two groups normally in lockstep but, even so, not without moments of disjunction. When the time came the next day for the Executive election at the Árd Fheis, a number of delegates interrupted to announce how they had been canvassed beforehand with such lists, their disapproval of this chicanery made publicly clear.
“I wish to associate myself strongly with what has just been said by the previous speakers,” de Valera said, simultaneously supportive while keen to avoid fingers being pointed at a time of supposed unity. “Those who are responsible had probably the very best motives in view, but when we are beginning – as we are – a new Ireland, it will not be necessary to resort to such methods in future.”
“The sense of the convention is strongly condemnatory of any attempt to run tickets,” added Griffith as president. “If that system were allowed to go on, it would destroy the movement in a few years.”
With that said, the election went ahead, resulting in the appointment of the twenty-four members of the new Executive, along with a change of presidency in the form of de Valera, by unanimous consent when the two other contenders, Griffith and Count Plunkett, as per a prior agreement between them, had the good grace – and political nous – to step back.
In doing so, “a split between the extremists and the moderate section was narrowly averted,” wrote the police report for October. Which was one more worry for the Inspector-General, Joseph Bryce, to give to his employers in Dublin Castle:
The state of political unrest…continued without abatement during the Month, and a marked advance in organization was made by the seditious Sinn Fein movement.
If the Sinn Féin of old under Griffith had been of the moderate persuasion, then now “the majority of Sinn Fein leaders owe their present prominence to active participation in the late rising” with the same zealotry carried over. De Valera was a case in point: from being an obscure teacher, he was now instructing an audience in Co. Clare, with the air of a general marshalling his troops, to ready themselves for an opportune moment to strike again.
Other speeches from Sinn Féin figures were of a similar calibre and, in light of such blatant calls to sedition, Bryce warned:
It is obvious that several are prepared to plunge the country into another rebellion should a favourable opportunity occur, and that the whole movement must be regarded as a serious menace to the state.
And yet, at the same time, “the majority of the adherents of Sinn Fein are believed to be averse to physical force.” For all the talk of war and rebellion repeated, “it will be noticed that drilling activity [of the Irish Volunteers] is so far confined to the S.W. area.”
Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha
This ambiguity over violence was reflected in the Árd Fheis when Father O’Meehan, as one of the delegates, proposed an amendment to the Sinn Féin constitution: that the words “means available”, in regards to obtaining Irish freedom, were to be followed by “deemed legitimate and effective.”
By ‘legitimate’ I mean not according to British rule in Ireland, but according to well-established etheral [?] and Christian principles. Our enemies would, for instance, be glad to say that assassination comes under this, and it is in order to prevent them saying that that I move this addendum.
In case such talk smacked too much of Redmondite ways, “I did not use the word ‘Constitutional’ because that has a bad flavour,” the priest added, earning himself a round of applause.
The proposed change was ultimately withdrawn. Opposing it had been Cathal Brugha, one of the more militant Republicans in the hall. Nothing in their constitution as it stood would lend itself to the interpretation that so concerned Father O’Meehan, Brugha insisted. In any case, the point was moot, as “we do not intend to meet English rule by assassination,” he said firmly.
As for a second Rising, that possibility, when raised, was met with laughter.
If constitutional flavours left a sour taste, and with the other end of the spectrum still too strong to stomach, how then was Sinn Féin to proceed? Father Gaynor hoped to answer this when he next rose to speak. “I have come here as a delegate with the sympathy of the men from Clare to move that we do not set up a political organisation,” he said, “and we have come here in the hope that we will find something better to do.”
Instead of following in the footsteps of the Irish Parliamentary Party with another political machine, Gaynor urged, the convention must establish nothing less than a ruling body with a mandate for the whole country. In doing so:
We should make the position straight by showing that we do not want a Sinn Féin party versus the Irish Party, but a Provisional Government versus Dublin Castle and the British Government.
Which was rather putting the cart before the horse, as many of the other attendees in the hall pointed out. For all the lofty proclamations of nationhood and the Republic, there still remained the gritty task of earning the right to speak for Ireland.
“This organisation is a national organisation in the broadest sense of the term but, all the same, it cannot be regarded as a constituent assembly,” de Valera pointed out. “Surely we have got beyond the stage where politics should be regarded as roguery and politicians as rogues.”
Others would have disagreed. But, while the likes of young Todd Andrews, as he watched John Redmond being hounded in the streets, may have dismissed politicians as a low and dirty breed, Sinn Féin was nonetheless nearing the point where, in beating the system, you become the system.
 Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917), pp. 88-9
It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.
“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.
During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:
At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.
The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.
And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”
This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:
Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.
Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.
“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.
‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’
None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.
“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.
And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.
He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.
Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.
“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”
On the Defence
What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:
It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.
True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”
What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:
Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.
Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”
If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”
It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.
Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”
Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:
Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.
Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”
Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:
…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.
Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.
The Plunkett Convention
Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”
They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.
“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:
In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.
Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.
On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.
“Callous and Disdainful”
Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:
There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.
With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.
With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.
Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”
Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”
The Most Important Thing
Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.
“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.
“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”
Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:
This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”
Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:
He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.
With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.
“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.
Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.
At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.
The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:
At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.
However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.
As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:
Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.
Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.
In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.
At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.
He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:
Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.
Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.
Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.
MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:
The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.
As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.
‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’
The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”
And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”
Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.
Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”
Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:
…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.
If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:
It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.
Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”
Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.
A Decision Made
It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.
Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely
I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.
The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”
Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”
The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.
Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.
Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.
This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.
By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:
Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.
The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.
A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.
Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.
“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”
At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.
But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.
The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:
If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.
Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:
The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.
Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.
At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”
The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:
Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.
As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:
Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland!
Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:
Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.
Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.
Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”
Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”
Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.
“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.
The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.
To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.
“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”
It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.
When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.
‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’
The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.
While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”
Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.
Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.
“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”
Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”
Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:
Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.
Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”
‘A Powerful Hold’
Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.
At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”
On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:
The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.
If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.
In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”
Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”
Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.
South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.
The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.
“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:
As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.
The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:
Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. 
No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:
The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?
Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.
As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:
I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.
Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.
Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”
‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’
While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.
The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”
He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:
Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.
But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”
And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.
The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.
As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.
In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.
On the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.
The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.
Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:
We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.
O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.
Lost and Found
Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.
Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.
Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:
A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.
As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:
The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.
Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.
MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.
On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:
The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.
It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:
For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.
But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”
‘A Confusion of Factions’
Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,
Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.
Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.
The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.
For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.
Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.
Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.
Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.
“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.
In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.
More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.
Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.
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), p. 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)
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Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922)
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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)
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O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963)
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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)
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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)
Do personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.
An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.
“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.
“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”
Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.
Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.
But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:
Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.
Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”
Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.
Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.
This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:
Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.
For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.
Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and became an implacable opponent to the Prime Minister, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.
If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.
Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.
German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.
Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.
On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”
The extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” W.B. Yeats wrote of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.
But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.
As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.
To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.
“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”
For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.
Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:
We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.
Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.
As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.
To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”
Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.
The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:
…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.
What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:
They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.
It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the work consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.
For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.
But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath the surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.
But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals mostly hailed from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and their pre-split meetings together saw them developing opinions at odds with those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”
Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.
Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.
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)