The Chains of Trust: Liam Lynch and the Slide into Civil War, 1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: The Limits of Might: Liam Lynch and the End/Start of Conflict (Part I), 1921-2

The Fabric of Authority

Florence O’Donoghue was soon in despair over the attitude of many of his peers on the new Executive. Elected to provide leadership to those in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who opposed the Treaty, the Executive quickly developed divisions of its own, with O’Donoghue complaining at how:

The Executive never fused into an effective unit. It never had a common mind or a common policy. There was not time. Many matters, not strictly the concern of the Army, obtruded in discussion, social theories were aired and debated, projects were considered in an atmosphere of unreality, stresses developed which weakened the fabric of authority. Things were done and ordered to be done without knowledge of all the members, sometimes without Liam [Lynch]’s knowledge.[1]

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Rory O’Connor

Seconding this dissatisfaction was Joseph O’Connor. As another member of the Executive, he found that its meetings “were often far from satisfactory and we seemed to be unable to reach decisions.” Confusion bred contempt, with the different groupings in the Executive undertaking their own actions without concern for their colleagues. “The Rory O’Connor [no relation] element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” he remembered dolefully.[2]

Joseph O’Connor might have had in mind a press conference Rory gave on the 22nd March 1922, four days before the first of the IRA conventions, the holding of which, Rory said, signalled the repudiation of the Dáil’s authority. The interview’s main impact was Rory’s reply of “You can take it that way if you like” when asked if the Anti-Treatyites intended to set up a military dictatorship, a gaffe which dismayed even like-minded contemporaries.[3]

Reasonable Uncertainty

O’Donoghue was among those unimpressed with Rory O’Connor’s antics:

How far his statements represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.[4]

So what was Lynch’s policy? Even a friend like O’Donoghue did not seem sure. Lynch was in danger of becoming a spectator to his own command.

The occupation of the Four Courts in Dublin further exemplified this uncertainty. According to Ernie O’Malley, it was he and Liam Mellows who spearheaded the entering of the building by the IRA in the early hours of the 14th April 1922. Only later did Lynch join them. Other than selecting rooms for new offices once the site was secure, he seems to have played only a minimal role in the takeover[5]

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The Four Courts, Dublin

When Rory O’Connor was interviewed later that day by the Irish Times, he was referred to as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” It was not simply ignorance on the newspaper’s part, for while it was Lynch who held the title as Chief of Staff, others such as Rory O’Connor, Mellows or O’Malley could have laid equal claim to the status of leader at different times. The Anti-Treatyites had an abundance of chiefs at the expense of Indians.[6]

Regardless of who was what, Lynch felt emboldened enough to write to his brother Tom four days after the seizure of the Four Courts, boasting that they had “at last thrown down the gauntlet again to England through the Provisional Government.” As far as he was concerned, this was not so much a feud between Irishmen but the latest step in the war against an ancestral foe.

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The three Lynch brothers, left to right: Father Tom Lynch, Brother Martin Lynch and Liam Lynch

A Closing of the Ranks

“I write this from the G.H.Q. Four Courts not knowing the hour we will be attacked by Machine Gun or Artillery,” Lynch wrote. He was not overly concerned for, as he explained to Tom, they had about 150 well-equipped men defending the buildings, along with the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA in the city and throughout the country they could call upon.

Not that Lynch thought he would need to do so: “I am absolutely certain that the Free State was sent to its doom by our action last week.” While he had his regrets, he was determined not to let them deter him from doing what he must do: “Sad it is to risk having to clash with our old comrades but we cannot count the cost.”[7]

Others were not so sanguine about the potential costs of the direction their country was taking. On the 1st May, ten IRA officers met to agree that enough was enough. That half of this group were from the anti-Treaty wing – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales, Dan Breen, Seán O’Hegarty and Humphrey Murphy – and the rest were pro-Treaty – Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Seán Boylan – suggests that this was no spontaneous gathering but a carefully calculated gesture towards reconciliation.

With the aid of the Dáil Éireann Publicity Department, this group of ten issued a statement:

We, the undersigned officers of the IRA, realising the gravity of the present situation in Ireland, and appreciating the fact that if the present drift is maintained a conflict of comrades is inevitable, declare that this would be the greatest calamity in Irish history, and would leave Ireland broken for generations.

Thus, they said, a “closing of the ranks all round” was called for. But these men were not relying on rhetoric and good intentions alone. Also submitted were several suggested points on the best way forward:

  • An acceptance by both sides that the majority of the people were willing to accept the Treaty.
  • An agreed election with a view to:
  • Forming a government with the confidence of the whole country.
  • Army unification on that basis.

Rory O’Connor fumed, calling it a “political dodge, intended by the Anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” Others were similarly dismissive. Hales and Breen found that they had earned themselves the disdain of many of their IRA peers, with only their sterling records in the war against Britain stopping such critics from being too outspoken.[8]

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Liam Lynch

In contrast to O’Connor, Lynch – a reserved man by nature – kept his thoughts to himself. After all, two of the ten men, O’Donoghue and Hales, were close allies of his, having been pushed by him to be on the IRA Executive in the first place. While it is impossible to say with certainty if Lynch approved of their initiative, he proved willing to grasp at the chance presented by this show of solidarity.

The Chiefs Talk

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Eoin O’Duffy

And so Lynch sat down with Eoin O’Duffy in the Mansion House on the 4th May. There, the two Chiefs of Staff of their respective militaries – Lynch for the IRA, O’Duffy with the National Army – signed a pledge for a truce, set to last from 4 pm on the 5th until the same time on the 8th. While not an especially lengthy period, these four days would hopefully provide enough to explore a possible basis for peace – perhaps even the reunification of their forces.[9]

Such hopes were almost stopped before they even began when Lynch presented his conditions at a subsequent meeting in the Mansion House on the 6th May:

  • The maintenance of an Irish Republic, meaning that the whole administration of the country, to be conducted by the Government of the Irish Republic.
  • That the IRA be maintained as the Army of the Republic under the control of an independent Executive.
  • A working arrangement to be entered into between the Government of the Republic and the Executive of the IRA.

This ‘independent Executive’ was presumably to be the anti-Treaty one already in place. Since Lynch had demanded all while conceding nothing, it is not surprising that hopes among the Free State command were deflated.

“On behalf of GHQ it could not be agreed that the memorandum put forward by Comdt. Lynch was a satisfactory basis from which to develop unification proposals,” read an internal review, adding gloomily: “Pending any political settlement it is felt that the question of Army unification cannot usefully be pursued further.”[10]

Nonetheless, it was agreed to extend the truce and continue such talks in the future. Lynch showed that he was willing to give a little when he allowed for the evacuation of the Ballast Office on Westmoreland Street, occupied by the Anti-Treatyites since the 1st May.

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Westmoreland Street, Dublin

Lynch was true to his word. A number of lorries parked outside the Ballast Office later that day for the removal of the sandbags, kitchen utensils and bedding back to the Four Courts. As the windows had been broken in the initial takeover in order to make way for the sandbags, the departing garrison thoughtfully left a guard on duty for the night to deter looters.

Rumours that the Kildare Street Club and the Masonic Hall would also be cleared of their IRA occupants proved unfounded, however. Instead, a lorry pulled up at each location in turn for men to emerge, carrying fresh sandbags – possibly the same ones taken from the Ballast Office – with which to further reinforce these positions. The Anti-Treatyites would only be led so far – for now.[11]

Criminal Epidemic

Life in Ireland was increasingly subject to the whims and dictates of military apparatchiks who remained unaccountable and seemed unconcerned by what was convenient for anyone else. Further compounding this sense of helplessness was the policing vacuum. With the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary and no immediate replacement, civilians had little recourse to the gun-toting young men and their disturbingly casual attitudes towards private property.

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IRA men in Grafton Street, Dublin

“The epidemic of raids of continues practically all over the Ireland,” read the Freeman’s Journal on the 16th May, reporting how storehouses, pubs, garages and post offices were all considered fair game. Cars in particular were prized spoils, and victims of such hijackings in Dublin would often need look no further than the Four Courts for their lost vehicles, where a collection of accumulated motors provided some diversion to garrison members who took them on rural excursions or around the city.

When a group of four such joyriders were passing through Lower Grafton Street, a British armoured automobile swung around the corner ahead, followed by a lorry full of troops not yet departed from the country. The Anti-Treatyites swerved to avoid the first vehicle, colliding instead with the lorry.

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A Rolls-Royce Armoured Car, of the type commonly used by British forces

None of the passengers were hurt, and one of the IRA party even leapt out with his .45 Colt at the ready, only to find himself staring down the barrel of the machine-gun mounted on the enemy automobile. Deciding now that discretion was the better part of valour, the men dispersed into the gathering crowd of onlookers. Their mangled ride was left behind to be someone else’s problem.

As one of these men, Todd Andrews, candidly admitted: “It was not ours and we did not know or care who the owner was. Such was our frame of mind.” He attributed such solipsistic unconcern to the gnawing frustration he and his comrades felt at the political deadlock. They were soldiers without a war, in a country not at peace.[12]

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Junction of Grafton and Nassau Streets, where the collision took place

Certain Friendly Incidents

Both sides were eager to clamp down on such indiscipline. Progress had been made by the 26th May when Richard Mulcahy dispatched a note to Michael Collins, apprising him of the agreements reached so far between him and Lynch:

  • That there be no more commandeering of motors or of private property.
  • All motors previously taken by the “Four Courts people” be returned.
  • The restoration of people to their homes and property to be carried out at once.
  • All occupied buildings in Dublin to be evacuated at once.
  • A preliminary Army Council was due to hold its first meeting on the following day, the 27th May, to consider the question of unity of command.[13]

The Cork Examiner caught wind of the new sense of optimism. On the 2nd June, it told of how a “cheery piece of news in the midst of much that is uncertain as that which can now be announced with practically official authority”:

…that a scheme for the unification of the IRA forces has been agreed upon certain definite lines…Certain friendly incidents which have recently taken place in Dublin and elsewhere give ground for high hopes of efficiency and camaraderie among the army.[14]

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Tom Hales

Many of the anti-Treaty rank-and-file rejoiced at the possibility of a reunited Army, not least because it would allow them the same perks of regular pay and new equipment that their Free State counterparts enjoyed. A friend of Tom Hales noted how relieved and satisfied he appeared at having helped avert an internecine war.[15]

Common Ground, Common Enemy

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Michael Collins

The talks also allowed Lynch and Collins to cooperate on another project, one kept well hidden from all but their carefully selected insiders. However much of a stumbling block the Treaty posed, it would not stop either man from looking at the bigger national picture, especially where the common foe was concerned.

With British soldiers still stationed in Ulster and the status of its pre-Partition counties an unresolved question, the two leaders covertly agreed to funnel arms, as well as manpower drawn from both their factions, to the Northern IRA for whom the War of Independence had never really ended.

Such an idea had been gestating for some time. Seán Mac Eoin had appeared to allude to such a possibility, during a pro-Treaty demonstration in Cork on the 13th March, when the Longford war hero –and a close confidant of Collins – expressed disappointment to see guns in the city. He knew of a place instead where they were wanted.

“To those people I say,” he said, “if they want a war, let them come along with me and they will get it.” Whether or not Mac Eoin had intended anything definite by that, there were soon moves to turn rhetoric into reality, albeit clandestinely.

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Frank Aiken

Frank Aiken was to have command of these Ulster operations. The Armagh-based IRA leader had been straddling the Treaty divide, making him an acceptable choice of point man for both sides. This selection was confirmed when Seán Lehane, one of the Cork officers appointed to assist in this venture, was instructed by Lynch to take his orders directly from Aiken.

Conscious of the difficulties that Britain could still make should it decide to, Collins insisted on one particular clause: all munitions sent Northwards were to be supplied by the Cork brigades which were part of Lynch’s First Southern Division. These martial contributions would be remunerated by the National Army, courtesy of the British military, which was unaware as to where its donations to its new ‘allies’ were ending up – a detail that must have been especially pleasing to those involved. Should any of these guns fall into British hands, then only the avowedly anti-Treaty Cork IRA would be blamed, allowing Collins to claim plausible deniability.[16]

Secrecy was, of course, paramount. While helping in the Four Courts as a clerk, Andrews was aware of the lorry loads of arms coming from the National Army headquarters at Beggar’s Bush. But he had no inkling of the reasons behind this strange exchange between nominal enemies, there being no paperwork and nothing said beyond gossip and rumours.[17]

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Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, headquarters to the pro-Treaty armed forces

A New Army

Andrews was able to learn more about the talks for a reunited IRA when a copy of the minutes was sent to his office for filing. To his cynical eye, such notes were of little more than “fruitless discussion” between men who “never succeeded in agreeing.”[18]

Despite what Andrews may have thought, by the 4th June negotiations had broken through to a drafting stage.  At a meeting with Mulcahy and O’Duffy on one side, and Lynch and Seán Moylan on the other, plans for a hybrid GHQ were drawn up. O’Duffy was to remain Chief of Staff, with Lynch as Deputy Chief of Staff. The rest of the new Army Council would consist of Mulcahy, Florence O’Donoghue, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Seán Moylan, Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor.

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Group photo of pro and anti-Treaty IRA officers together – (left to right) Seán Mac Eoin, Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows

Part of Lynch’s duties as Deputy Chief of Staff would consist of appointing the staff who would reorganise the new Army – no small task and a measure of the trust he was being invested in. Inefficient officers were to be dropped and personnel in general reset to what it was on the 1st December 1921, before the signing of the Treaty – nobody had any time for blow-ins who only signed up to fight when the fighting was already done.

The co-founders of the new Army-to-be were meticulous in their planning, taking care to account for tender feelings and nationalist sensitivities as well as the practical needs of forming a military. Among the points put down were:

  • “No man to be victimised because of honest political views.”
  • “The training syllabus shall be drafted as much with a view of giving men a Gaelic outlook as to making them efficient soldiers. A mercenary army must be avoided”.
  • “The Army shall not ordinarily be concerned with maintenance of law and order except in so far as all good citizens should be.”
  • “Ex-soldiers of others armies [namely, the British one] to be employed ordinarily only in a training or advisory capacity, only those whose record and character stands scrutiny to be employed (this rule not to apply to men who fought with us).”

For all the lofty talk and aspirations, the four planners were not naïve to the bitterness that would continue to lurk between the sides in the soon-to-be-buried divide. For the brigades and battalions too damaged to cooperate together, new officers were to be brought in to provide a fresh slate.

Particular care was taken in the constitution for the Army Council, elected at regularly held conventions. While the Minister for Defence would be appointed in the ordinary way by the Government, and he would in turn appoint his Chief of Staff, both men would require the approval by a majority vote of the Council.[19]

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Richard Mulcahy

When explaining – and, at the same time, defending – these proposals to the Dáil four months later in September, Mulcahy admitted that indulgences were not ideal. He certainly would not recommend any other fledgling state to organise its military on such liberal lines. But, given the circumstances, he had felt that such allowances had to be made.[20]

Steps Forwards, Steps Back

Allowing the new Army Council freedom from civilian oversight would, of course, grant it no small amount of independence – and power. Mulcahy was aware of the tightrope he was walking when he wrote to O’Hegarty on the 6th June about the progress made:

I, meantime have created consternation amongst the Government by letting them know I have more or less agreed to an agreed Army Council, the majority of whom were more or less in arms against the Government until a day or two ago, and of whose attitude they have absolutely no guarantee.[21]

Meanwhile, Lynch was facing the consternation from his own side. Not even the offer of a post on the Army Council could soothe the irascible Rory O’Connor, who had not budged from his conviction that anything short of completely rejecting the Treaty was tantamount to treason. On the 15th June, he and Ernie O’Malley sent a memo to Mulcahy about a resolution passed the day before by the Executive:

  1. Negotiations for Army unification must stop.
  2. Whatever necessary action to maintain the Republic would be taken.
  3. No offensive will be taken against Free State forces.[22]

The last promise must have been cold comfort to Mulcahy, who saw the painstaking work of the last two months in danger of being dashed asunder. For now, at least, he need not have worried. O’Connor’s and O’Malley’s attempted sabotage were the last-ditch attempts of desperate men feeling the ground slip from under them.

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Ernie O’Malley

O’Malley was finding himself increasingly stonewalled by his Chief of Staff. He tried telling Lynch, in the latter’s Four Courts office, about how essential it was to work out a contingency plan in the event of an attack. Lynch demurred on the grounds that the negotiations would soon end to everyone’s satisfaction. Republican interests would be maintained on the new GHQ, and that was that.

O’Malley pressed the issue, citing a distrust of Mulcahy, but his superior officer held firm. Lynch did concede permission for O’Malley to inspect the layout of the Four Courts. O’Malley wrote up a plan of defence based on his observations but Lynch made no effort to implement it.[23]

Slow Death

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Liam Lynch

From Lynch’s perspective, there was no need to prepare for anything that was not going to happen. As he wrote to his brother Tom on the 1st May, he had the means to end the Free State by force if he so wished, “but we don’t mind giving it a slow death, especially when it means the avoidance of loss of life & general civil war.”[24]

For now, the negotiations represented the best means to achieve the bloodless victory Lynch craved. By the end of May, Lynch announced to Tom that only a few wrinkles remained to be ironed out: “We have so far agreed a coalition Army Council which is now in complete control of army under chairmanship of Minister of Defence, but as yet we have not agreed on a G.H.Q. staff.”[25]

Lynch felt like a man who could see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. “Since the truce has been a worse time on me than the whole war, every bribe & cunning plan has been put up to us but Thank God we pulled through to take once more free action,” he told Tom.[26]

Such optimism – or indolence, depending on one’s point of view – was starting to have a detrimental effect on the rest of the Anti-Treatyites. Instructions to evacuate posts in Dublin, with a view to the Four Courts being included, convinced many that their Chief of Staff was weakening.[27]

In the opinion of Tom Kelleher, a fellow veteran of the Cork IRA, Lynch had not been up to the task, allowing his forces to fragment into small, ineffective groups when they should have throttled the Free State at the start of 1922. But such boldness, or rashness, had never been Lynch’s way.[28]

Sanctum Sanctorum

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Séumas Robinson

Kelleher and O’Malley should not have been surprised. Lynch had always been something of a priss where military hierarchy was concerned, according to Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade: “It was well known to me and to other Brigade officers that G.H.Q. was Sanctum Sanctorum to Liam, that the Chief of Staff was its High Priest.”

The two future anti-Treaty leaders had first met in an open field in Tipperary, in October 1920, to discuss the best ways of taking the fight to the British military. Robinson had found the talk a chore due to the other man’s leaden personality: “I felt that he ignored, if not deliberately supressed, as a waste of time and energy, his own sense of humour.”

When Robinson suggested they pool their military resources, Lynch was hesitant, lest such an initiative intrude on GHQ’s prerogatives. Robinson inwardly compared him to a Doctor of Divinity “refusing to write a thesis unless and until he had first got his Bishop’s imprimatur.”[29]

It was thus entirely in character for Lynch to try and bring the sundered IRA back together. Unlike O’Malley or Rory O’Connor, he had taken no joy in defying his old comrades in GHQ. Nor had he ever stood out as a hardliner. “He evinced none of the fiery opposition to the Treaty,” wrote the Irish Times after his death, “which was shown by Cathal Brugha, Éamon de Valera, Liam Mellows and other members of the anti-Treaty party.”[30]

Of course, the newspaper may have mistaken ‘low-key’ for ‘lukewarm’. But many of his own colleagues made that same assumption and distrusted Lynch accordingly. “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” wrote Liam Deasy, aggrieved at how he and Lynch found themselves cold-shouldered and dismissed as “well intentioned but failing in our stand to maintain the Republic.”[31]

In truth, Lynch was as determined as anyone in his opposition to the Treaty. However, his methods were very different to the brashness of Rory O’Connor, the aggression from O’Malley and the snide asides by Robinson. Not for him the love of confrontation, the finger-pointing accusations of treason or the grandstanding.

Instead, compromise, cunning and diplomacy were to be his tactics – that is, if others would let him.

Ultimatum

How well or long this GHQ innovation – with O’Duffy at its head and Lynch as his deputy – would have lasted is debatable. Any situation that kept the Treaty in place was a concession on Lynch’s part – his critics would have said a surrender – but he had no doubts that the long-run would favour him and the anti-Treaty cause. The so-called Free State would be broken from within and the remnants absorbed into a reborn Republican Army.

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Richard Mulcahy inspecting a parade of the National Army

But Chief of Staff did not equate to dictator, and Lynch needed the latest IRA Convention, on the 18th June, to agree to his deal of an integrated GHQ. O’Malley took a dim view of the event, just as he disapproved of much of Lynch’s decisions. To him, all the Convention was going to do was distract from the pressing need to ready the IRA for a war he saw as inevitable. Any delays only provided time for their pro-Treaty opponents to prepare.

Others were of like mind. But, unlike O’Malley who seems to have been resigned to his belief that Lynch was leading them to ruin, one of them had a plan. It would not be the last time Tom Barry would be a spanner in Lynch’s works.

Sources differ as to the exact sequence of events on the 18th June 1922. The fullest version is Seán MacBride’s, from a notebook of his seized in Newbridge Barracks on July 1923. Here, the Convention of the year before, once again held inside the Mansion House, opened with Mellows reading out a report on the general situation since the last such gathering in May.

As soon as he was done, Barry proposed a resolution for an ultimatum to be delivered to the British soldiers still present in Ireland: depart within seventy-two hours or face a renewed war.0540

Tom Barry’s Motion

This took many of the attendees aback, as MacBride remembered. To those not entirely sure what was going on, it was explained to them, bit by bit from the other delegates, that this was the alternative to Lynch’s unification proposals, which had yet to be addressed. It was clear that Barry was intending to sink Lynch’s attempts at compromise with a shot beneath the bows.

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Florence O’Donoghue

(In the accounts by Deasy and O’Donoghue, who were also present, the proposal to unite the Army as per Lynch’s suggestion was raised first. According to Deasy, the motion was defeated in a show of hands by 140 to 115. Only then did Barry speak up. In O’Donoghue’s version, they did not get as far as a vote – the debate dragged on until Barry interrupted.)

Opposing Barry’s (counter?) motion was Lynch, Deasy, Moylan and the other moderates. While otherwise a hardliner, MacBride thought it unwise for Barry to have spoken without prior warning as it put otherwise sympathetic attendees in an awkward spot. Todd Andrews believed it to be the “daftest proposal yet conceived” but in the fevered atmosphere, it attained a certain sense to some.

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Tom Barry

Barry evidently thought that just delivering his proposition was enough and made no attempt to defend it, leaving Rory O’Connor to pick up the slack and argue for its merits. The rest of the proceedings were a blur to MacBride, though he did recall that there was a lot of oratory on display. “Speech-making undoubtedly seems to be one of our national failings,” he grumbled.

When Barry’s ultimatum was finally put to a vote, it was passed (by a couple of votes in MacBride’s version, by 140 to 118 in Deasy’s). Meanwhile, Deasy could see, from where he sat on the platform, men entering the hall under what he thought to be questionable circumstances.

Unpacking the Vote

It was obvious to Deasy that vote-packing was underway, and not in his side’s favour. According to him, it was later confessed that some twenty to thirty un-credentialed attendees had been admitted. Given how one moderate-leaning delegate, Florence Begley, was refused entry as he had not been at the previous convention in May – the doormen having photographs of those who had – it seemed that the lax security that Deasy spotted could be suspiciously selective.

(Begley would look back at the Convention with bitterness, saying that the Civil War could have been avoided had it not been for Barry – a bit of an oversimplification, as Lynch was opposed by many on the Executive as well.)

After another lengthy discussion, the demand for a revote was upheld. On this second attempt, Barry’s motion was lost (118 to 98 by Deasy’s count, 118 to 103 in O’Donoghue’s).

Rory O’Connor took defeat in bad grace, warning that he would leave if the unification program was brought forward. He was true to his word: when these proposals did indeed come up, he stepped off the platform and left the hall along with around half the other delegates, specifically those who had voted for Barry’s ultimatum.

MacBride followed to where Rory O’Connor, Mellows and Joe McKelvey were hurriedly conversing outside the hall. They informed the other delegates who had departed with them of their intention to hold a convention of their own inside the Four Courts the next day.

MacBride was instructed to go back inside and announce this to those remaining. “There was an absolute silence and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door” after doing so, he later wrote. “A few more delegates came out.”

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Seán MacBride

MacBride’s participation was remembered more dramatically by Andrews and Deasy. In their versions, it was MacBride, not O’Connor, who urged the dissenting attendees to leave. Andrews recalled MacBride waving a .45 Colt automatic in the air as he shouted in his French accent: “All who are in favour of the Republic follow me to the Four Courts.”[32]

Whatever the exact circumstances, one thing was all too clear – Lynch’s dreams of a peaceful solution and a reconciled IRA were dead in the water. He had sought to reunite the two factions but proved unable to either control or convince his own.

Locked Out

Despite the lax security on the doors, the drama inside the Mansion House did not become public knowledge. Six days later, the Cork Examiner felt compelled to address how:

All kinds of rumours continue to be in circulation concerning the present army position but, as has already been pointed out, no attentions should be paid to various, and in many cases, very wild statements that are to be heard throughout Dublin and many parts of the country.

The newspaper mentioned the Convention and how it was to consider the unification scheme, but provided no further information, only that “any decision will be awaited with general interest.”[33]

By then, the Free State had managed to be better informed. “The proposals came before the Convention but it is understood they were not accepted,” deadpanned an internal National Army report.[34]

Mulcahy would try to put a more muscular spin on things, later suggesting to the Dáil in September that it had been the GHQ which had turned down the proposals. The given reason was that the man due for a top post in the new Army had “a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the press” – a description that most closely matches that of Rory O’Connor – this being a step too far for the Provisional Government. It is clear, however, that the rejection came from the Anti-Treatyite end.[35]

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Pro-Treaty poster

Lynch proved equally wrong-footed. He had no inkling that anything was particularly amiss when he and Deasy made their way to the Four Courts shortly after the Convention, intending to deal with the latest batch of rifles due to be sent up to Ulster.

They arrived to find the gates locked and a notice curtly informing that those who had voted against Barry’s war resolution would not be admitted. This exclusion had been ordered on the night of the 18th June, as soon as O’Connor and his party returned. O’Malley had dallied at the Mansion House, persuading the sentries to allow him back in only with difficulty.[36]

Next Steps

Lynch and Deasy trudged back to break the news of this split-within-a-split. A meeting was quickly held in Barry’s Hotel where Lynch was confirmed as Chief of Staff for the remaining anti-Treaty forces. Lynch would later publicly state that he had not been Chief of Staff of the IRA since the Convention of the 18th June until resuming the post on the 29th. He presumably meant that he had not been Chief of Staff of the Anti-Treatyites in their entirety between those dates.[37]

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Barry’s Hotel, Dublin

Joseph O’Connor would later give a slightly different version of events. Acting as chairman during the June Convention, he had – despite sympathising with Tom Barry’s motion – ensured that the revote was carried out fairly by making each delegate submit his vote in the presence of a representative from either side. The resulting turmoil that night left O’Connor a “physically sick and disgusted man,” worsened by how he suffered the indignity of also being barred from the Four Courts the next day.

Having failed to talk to someone in charge to explain his case, O’Connor left the Four Courts to join with his remaining colleagues, though the Executive procedures scarcely made this much easier: “After some trouble I got the necessary two signatures, with my own, to have the meeting called.”

As opposed to Deasy’s memoirs, in which Lynch discovered the Four Courts lockout first-hand, in O’Connor’s version Lynch only learnt of it from him. Lynch took the news badly: “Lynch refused to enter the Courts because of the scandalous order to which I have referred” – not that the occupants were likely to allow him to at that point.

Despite such anger, it was decided to do nothing for the moment. Even in the face of severe provocation, Lynch was not one to order anything rash.

mellows
Liam Mellows

O’Connor was leaving the meeting when he was approached by a contrite Mellows who urged him to return to the Four Courts. It took some persuading for O’Connor to do so but, upon arrival, he remonstrated with the garrison leaders on the insanity of having three separate armies in one city.

His words must have had an effect, for the chill between the two anti-Treaty factions thawed a little. Lynch and his loyal staff were allowed to attend meetings in the Four Courts, even while remaining at odds with its garrison. Still, it was something.[38]

A New Break and a Fresh Start

The outside world remained largely oblivious to such dissensions. For all their dysfunction, the Anti-Treatyite leadership was able to keep a tight rein at least on its information. While the Cork Examiner reported how, on the 26th June, “a meeting of Army Officers giving allegiance to the Four Courts’ Executive was…conducted within the Four Courts,” it admitted that “no information relating to the object of the meeting or the matter under consideration was issued.”[39]

Deasy
Liam Deasy

Deasy was probably relieved to return to his native county of Cork. The demands of the First Southern Division, of which he was the O/C, had piled up in his absence, and Deasy settled down to deal with them in his office at Mallow Barracks. The days passed by in a blur of minutiae as he busied himself with his work. While Deasy could not entirely shake off the lingering sense of foreboding, he refused to seriously envision a war between men who had only months ago been brothers-in-arms.[40]

It was a morning like any other on the 27th June when Deasy received a phone-call from Lynch, urging him to be on the first train back to Dublin. His interest piqued, Deasy reunited with Lynch at Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station, where his Chief of Staff told him that Mellows and McKelvey had asked to meet as soon as he arrived.

Lynch and Deasy went straight to the Four Courts, where they met the other two and talked together in a quiet room until shortly after midnight. Then they crossed over to the Clarence Hotel, where Lynch had made his latest headquarters. There, other members of Lynch’s staff were waiting expectantly.

Lynch announced that the schism between them and the Four Courts had been ended. If the Free Staters were to try anything, they would have to deal with a stronger, reunited IRA.

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Clarence Hotel, Dublin

The End and the Beginning

As the meeting finished, Joseph O’Connor, who was also present, was informed by his adjutant that all the National Army soldiers had been confined to their barracks – an ominous sign. He passed this on to Lynch, who replied: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.”

The Free State general in question had recently been abducted by the Anti-Treatyites in retaliation for the detaining of some of their own. Other than telling O’Connor to pass this news on to McKelvey, Lynch did not seem overly concerned, not even when Mellows took him and Deasy aside to warn of an incoming attack on the Four Courts, probably before daybreak.

Someone high up the Provisional Government had leaked the plans, Mellows added. But he did not provide a name for his supposed source and so the other men dismissed this as scaremongering. Besides, both Lynch and Deasy were sceptical that Collins – who they both still considered a friend – would take such a drastic step. Deasy was so unconcerned, and so tired, that he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow in his room at the Clarence.

The next thing he knew, Lynch was shaking him awake, saying: “Do you not hear the shelling?”

For the past two hours, the National Army had been pounding away at the Four Courts with artillery. The unthinkable was already happening. For a short while, all the pair could do was sit in awkward silence, Lynch on the edge of Deasy’s bed, both too stunned to say a word.[41]

To be continued in: The Fog of Certainty: Liam Lynch and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part III)

attack-on-four-courts
National Army soldiers attack the Four Courts

References

[1] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 230

[2] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), p. 10

[3] Irish Times, 23/03/1922 ; Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 233

[4] O’Donoghue, p. 219

[5] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 88-91

[6] Irish Times, 15/04/1922

[7] Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 36,251/26

[8] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7/B/192/34-5 ; O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 63

[9] Irish Times, 05/05/1922

[10] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/251

[11] Irish Times, 08/05/1922

[12] Andrews, pp. 241-2 ; Freeman’s Journal, 16/05/1922

[13] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/219

[14] Cork Examiner, 02/06/1922

[15] O’Donoghue, pp. 63-4

[16] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 204-5 ; Irish Times, 13/03/1922

[17] Andrews, pp. 238-9

[18] Ibid, pp. 237-8

[19] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/162-4

[20] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[21] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/233-4

[22] Ibid, P7/B/192/54

[23] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 100-2

[24] Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/27

[25] Ibid, MS 36,251/28

[26] Ibid, MS 36,251/27

[27] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, p. 109

[28] MacEoin, p. 230

[29] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 103-6

[30] Irish Times, 11/04/1923

[31] Deasy, p. 40

[32] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 127-30 ; O’Donoghue, p. 246 ; Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 41-2 ; Andrews, pp. 225-6 ; O’Malley. The Men Will Talk to Me, pp. 174-5

[33] Cork Examiner, 26/06/1922

[34] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/158

[35] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[36] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, p. 110

[37] Deasy, p. 42 ; Cork Examiner, 01/07/1922

[38] O’Connor, pp. 6-7

[39] Cork Examiner, 26/06/1922

[40] Deasy, pp. 43-4

[41] Ibid, pp. 45-7 ; O’Connor, p. 10

 

Bibliography

Books

Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

National Library of Ireland Collection

Liam Lynch Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

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The Limits of Might: Liam Lynch and the End/Start of Conflict, 1921-2 (Part I)

A Pause in the War

Deasy
Liam Deasy

When peace came to Ireland on the 11th July 1921, it was sudden, unexpected and, for some in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), not entirely welcome.

Two days earlier, Liam Deasy, the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, had been in Togher, a parish south of Cork City, overseeing a staff meeting of the Dunmanway Battalion, one of the six that made up that IRA Brigade. Deasy was in the process of drawing up plans with the Dunmanway men when the schoolteacher, whose house they were using, rushed in with a copy of that morning’s edition of the Cork Examiner.

A Truce between the IRA and the Crown forces was announced, due to come into effect in a couple of days’ time. The news was received in stunned silence, each man struggling to take in the enormity of what he had heard. “No trace of emotion, not the slightest sign of enthusiasm, betrayed themselves in the reaction of my colleagues,” was how Deasy remembered the scene.

Attempting to sort out his feelings, Deasy believed he would have opposed such a détente – had it been up to him – unless a satisfactory outcome was guaranteed. Since he was under no illusion as to how much the British Government would be prepared to concede, the ceasefire could be no more than temporary, useful only as breathing space before the next step on the journey towards complete independence and the Irish Republic.

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British soldiers in Dublin during the War of Independence

Still, Deasy was human enough to feel relief at the break in almost two years of life ‘on the run’ and the chance to move around freely without fear of arrest or death. But he was also concerned that such respite might prove problematic in terms of discipline. The same men who had stoically endured hardship and danger might not be so eager for more once the Truce ended and the war resumed.

Such were the thoughts and concerns swirling around Deasy’s head as he left Togher and travelled in a pony and trap towards Ballylickey, where he had made his latest Brigade headquarters. Accompanying him was Tom Barry, the famed flying column commander. When the two men reached Ballylickey, they found a dispatch waiting for them.

It was from Liam Lynch, the O/C of the First Southern Division and their superior officer. Both men were ordered to proceed to the Division Headquarters at the village of Glantane, to begin their new assignments, with Barry as the liaison officer with the British Army and Deasy to assist Lynch on the newly expanded Division staff. These instructions snapped the pair out of the fog of surprise, reminding them that their duty had not yet come to an end.[1]

Preparing for the Next Round

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Lynch often had this effect on people. “I was very impressed with Lynch,” recalled one contemporary. “He was always so meticulous about his appearance and dress… At the same time, he was a strong disciplinarian.”[2]

Nothing exemplified this exacting attitude better than the days immediately following the Truce. Lynch allowed himself or his men no relaxation, estimating that he had at best three or four weeks, possibly six, within which to do six months’ worth of work.

When a house in Glantane became vacant, the First Southern Division HQ quickly moved in. Besides mealtimes, the only pauses in the workload came on Sunday evenings when Lynch would suggest a walk in the countryside. Anything more was out of the question. It would amount, as he wrote to his brother Tom, to a “National sin when there is work to be done” – and there was much to do.[3]

A rare break, however unwillingly, came when he was arrested by a British patrol on the 18th August. A quick call to Dublin Castle was enough to secure his release and the continuation of the Truce. In the meantime, he had enjoyed chatting with the Black-and-Tans, jovially discussing with his captors the possibility of reacquainting with them on the battlefield.[4]

Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.

General Direction

As for the talks between President Éamon de Valera and the British Prime Minister, and the subsequent negotiations in London by the Irish Plenipotentiaries, Lynch and his staff had nothing more than a passing interest.

cathal-291122218_std
Cathal Brugha

Even the offer of a promotion from Dublin only served to irritate Lynch. On the 6th December, Lynch wrote to Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defence, to turn down the offer of commander-in-chief. The reason given – “after serious consideration,” Lynch stressed – was such an elevation would put him too much under the thumb of the Cabinet, to the detriment, Lynch feared, of effective military work: “I feel that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff cannot do their duty when they are not placed in a position to do so.”

The current frustration was a case in point. “At the present moment when war may be resumed at short notice I have got no general direction,” Lynch complained to Brugha. Lynch was not to be led astray from his priorities.[5]

That same day, Lynch was to receive news of another unwelcome distraction from the war with Britain: the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Plenipotentiaries. It did not take long for the First Southern Division to decide about it. At a meeting in Cork on the 10th December, four days after the signing, the Division staff unanimously adopted a resolution:

The Treaty as it is drafted is not acceptable to us as representing the Army in the 1st Divisional Area, and we urge its rejection by the Government.[6]

The resolution was sent to Richard Mulcahy as the IRA Chief of Staff, with instructions for it to be forwarded to the Cabinet. Lynch signed it as ‘Liam Ó Loingisg’, along with the members of his staff (including Deasy) and, in an impressive display of solidarity, all the Officers Commanding (O/Cs) of the Division brigades – the five from Cork, the three from Kerry and the sole ones from West Limerick and Waterford.

According to Deasy, this resolution was a step not taken lightly, given the implied criticism of Michael Collins – one of the signatories of the Treaty – who Lynch and his Divisional colleagues otherwise held in high regard.[7]

The Brotherhood

79278-004-257c2189
Michael Collins

Nonetheless, Lynch could not have been completely surprised. Collins had warned him to that effect a month earlier in November 1921. In a session of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Parnell Place, Cork, Collins had taken Lynch and his closest aides, Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, aside for a private chat.

Given the impossibility for either military or diplomatic actions to achieve complete independence for Ireland, Collins told them, compromises would inevitably have to be made. Perturbed, Lynch asked Collins not to repeat such a thing in front of the others, lest things ‘blow up’ there.[8]

In Dublin, a month later, on the 10th December, Lynch attended a conclave of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s ruling body. Two days afterwards, the Council issued a note to its adherents. For such a momentous decision, the instructions were surprisingly terse, saying only that the Supreme Council had decided that the Treaty should be ratified. However, those of the IRB who were also public representatives could act as they saw fit. That was all, for now.[9]

For Lynch, this decision was a profoundly disappointing one. It had also alienated him from the rest of the Supreme Council. As he recounted in a letter to O’Donoghue on the 11th December: “The situation is I stood alone at the meeting I attended.”

As far as Lynch knew, the First Southern Division might also standing apart from the rest of the IRA. Nonetheless, the “position I have taken up I mean to stand by.”

“Too Much Gas”

Florence
Florence O’Donoghue

Despite his bullish words, Lynch attempted to strike a pensive chord to O’Donoghue: “I do not recommend immediate war as our front is broken.”

Lynch suspected that the Treaty would be carried by a majority in the Dáil, in which case the minority would fall in line, a principle that must also apply within the Army “or we are lost.” For all his determination on behalf of the Irish Republic, it was the IRA and the threat to its cherished unity that was his immediate concern.

In regards to Collins: “I admire Mick as a soldier and a man. Thank God all parties can agree to differ.”[10]

Lynch repeated his conciliatory tone towards Collins in a letter to his brother Tom, written on the 12th: “Sorry I must agree to differ with Collins, that does not make us worse friends.” Should the war with Britain be resumed, Lynch had no doubt that Collins would continue to do his part for Irish freedom.

Not that friendship lessened Lynch’s convictions one bit: “First of all I must assure you that my attitude is now as always, to fight on for the recognition of the Republic,” even if that meant fighting on by himself. Should the Government accept the Treaty, as it seemed likely, then he would bide his time until they could “strike for final victory at most favourable opportunity.”

Lynch was looking forward to the time when ‘war-war’ could take over from ‘jaw-jaw’: “Speeches and fine talk do not go far these days,” he grumbled. “We have already too much gas.”[11]

4637990_orig
Anti-Treaty cartoon, depicting Michael Collins

“My God, It’s Terrible”

The Dáil debates over the Treaty began in Dublin on the 14th December 1921. Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue received invitations to attend and did so, even though none were Teachtaí Dála (TDs) and thus in no position to speak. Lynch might have been had he stood in the general election of the previous year, as requested by the East Cork Sinn Féin.

However, when no word of acceptance from Lynch was received, another man, Séamus Fitzgerald, was selected (and elected) instead. When Fitzgerald chanced upon Lynch during the Dáil debates, the latter said that he had never received the offer, but reassured Fitzgerald that he was quite happy that he had been the one elected.[12]

image
National Concert Hall, Dublin, the site of the Dáil debates when it was the National University

Lynch was probably sincere in this, considering how little he thought of ‘speeches and fine talk.’ The unedifying spectacle of “men who a few short months before were fighting as comrades side by side, now indulging in bitter recrimination, rancour, invective charges and counter charges” – as Deasy put it – was unlikely to have made him regret his missed opportunity in politics.[13]

(They were not the only ones so disgusted. Todd Andrews, who would later be Lynch’s aide-de-camp, found the debates so dispiriting that he walked away, convinced that only the Army could salvage anything out of the mess that politics had made.[14])

Dáil debate on the Treaty, 1921-22
Crowds outside the National University as the Dáil debated inside

At least Lynch had the opportunity while in Dublin to meet up with like-minded IRA officers. The house at 71 Heytesbury Street had long been used as a refuge for Volunteers on the run. Lynch had been nursed there through two illnesses. It was only fitting, then, for it to be the place of a reunion between him and Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows, all of whom, like Lynch, held senior positions in the IRA.

Lynch, O’Malley noted, “was square and determined looking. He tightened his pince-nez glasses and he muttered: ‘My God, it’s terrible, terrible.’”

Lynch was the first to break the sombre silence in the room. “I wish we knew what the other divisional officers thought and felt. That would make things easier.”

“Have you seen Collins?” asked O’Connor. “He was looking for you.”

“Yes, I have,” replied Lynch. “I met him and Eoin O’Duffy. They said the Treaty would give breathing space, allow the army to arm and equip, then we could declare war whenever a suitable opportunity came.”

“They mean to enforce the Treaty,” said a more sceptical O’Connor, “but we must organise.”

mellows
Liam Mellows

The chief problem, O’Malley said, was knowing who to trust. O’Connor was in favour of breaking away from the IRA GHQ control as soon as the Dáil debates were over. Nothing good could come from them or GHQ anymore. For now, they could rely only on each other. Robinson and O’Malley agreed. Mellows, in contrast, was content to wait, confident that, in any case, the IRA would never accept the Treaty, and that would be the end of the matter.

Short of a definite plan of action, the men could do little but agree to keep in touch before departing for the night.[15]

Lynch kept to this wait-and-see attitude when he later met with Dan Breen, who urged for them to forget the Truce and resume the war with Britain at once. Seeing Lynch’s lack of enthusiasm, Breen left in a huff.[16]

A Chance

O’Malley had first met Lynch in September 1920 while visiting Co. Cork as part of his travels as a GHQ organiser. Then the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, Lynch had impressed him as quiet but commanding, with O’Malley accompanying him in the capture of Mallow Barracks.[17]

But the two men never grew close, their relationship remaining a coolly professional one. This lack of shared sympathy would bedevil the Anti-Treatyites, hamstringing their attempts to coordinate effectively.

The mood amongst the anti-Treaty IRA had gone from bad to worse by the time Mulcahy summoned them for a sit-down in Banba Hall, Parnell Square, in January 1922. O’Malley was so suspicious that he went in with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat in case of arrest. Inside, the attendees sat in a semi-circle, the Anti-Treatyites to the right, their pro-Treaty counterparts on the left. Such self-segregation from the start did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

banba-hallWhen Mulcahy began by saying that the Free State intended to keep the name of the Republican Army, O’Connor cuttingly replied that a name did not make it so. Jim O’Donovan proceeded to call Collins a traitor. Collins leapt to his feet in fury amidst cries of ‘withdraw’ and ‘apologise’.

After Mulcahy restored some semblance of peace, he made a conciliatory suggestion: the Anti-Treatyites present could nominate two of their own to attend future GHQ meetings. When they withdrew to another room to talk this over, Lynch said he was in agreement. The others were not, preferring to make a clean break by setting up a command of their own, GHQ be damned, just as O’Connor had first suggested in Heytesbury Street.

Lynch stood his ground and threatened to go his own way. As the First Southern Division had the most manpower, controlled the most territory and was among the best armed, the other leaders had no choice but to back down. They had been cowed at the first challenge and by one of their own, something which none of them had anticipated.

Stalemated, the other Anti-Treatyites grudgingly agreed to give Mulcahy’s olive-branch a try. When they returned to a waiting Mulcahy to announce their decision, he was magnanimous enough to promise a convention for the IRA in two months’ time, where things could hopefully be straightened out for good.[18]

Limerick Takeover

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

As per Mulcahy’s proposal, O’Malley was selected as one of the Anti-Treatyites’ representatives. But O’Malley had little desire to be sitting in on meetings at GHQ, a body he had come to dismiss as an irrelevance at best, a hindrance at worst. Many of his peers were inclined to agree, prompting Lynch to do his utmost to prevent the widening gap between the anti and pro-Treaty factions from splitting into open warfare.

The first thing O’Malley did after his departure from Dublin was to call a meeting of the Second Southern Division. As their O/C, he placed the question of continued GHQ control to his brigades, of which one (East Limerick) was prepared to remain loyal, with the other four (Mid-Limerick, Kilkenny, Mid-Tipperary and South Tipperary) agreeing that the situation had become intolerable.[19]

Secure in the backing of most of his Division, O’Malley henceforth ignored all calls to bring him back to Dublin, including the summons to his own court-martial when GHQ finally realised his desertion. To make the estrangement official, the Mid-Limerick Brigade issued a proclamation, headed ‘Republican of Ireland’, on the 18th February, which explained that since the majority of GHQ were attempting to subvert the Republic, the Brigade could no longer recognise its authority.[20]

The dissenters were prepared to match their words with action. On the 7th March, the Limerick Chronicle informed its readers that “events in Limerick during the past couple of days have been rather significant, and in the minds of the citizens have created a certain amount of tension.”

Not that the citizens in question needed a newspaper to inform them of this. Two days before, IRA units from the GHQ-defying brigades entered the city and occupied a number of hotels as well as the disused wing of the District Mental Hospital – O’Malley, for one, appreciated the irony of that choice, given the state of the times.[21]

King John’s Castle remained in pro-Treaty hands. O’Malley had planned to take the medieval fortification in a surprise night-raid with the connivance of a sympathetic member of the garrison who was to open the gates to them at 11:30 pm. By 1 am, the inside man had yet to appear and O’Malley, fed up with waiting in the cold rain, allowed his sodden men to retire.[22]

king_johns_castle
King John’s Castle, Limerick

Limerick Standoff

At least the Anti-Treatyites had the comforts of bed and board that their hotel strongpoints provided. A second proclamation was sent to the Limerick Chronicle on the 9th March, explaining further the reasons for the occupation.

Mulcahy was blamed for refusing to allow them to occupy the barracks recently vacated by the Crown forces, sending instead officers chosen on account of their loyalty to GHQ rather than to the Republic: “He seeks to ensure that no matter how the coming IRA Convention decides, the Provisional Government will hold all areas for the Free State Party.”

To prevent such opportunism, the Anti-Treatyites of Limerick had brought in their comrades from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Kerry, Waterford and Galway. The city had rapidly become a microcosm of the Treaty divide.[23]

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IRA men on top of an armoured car in Limerick in the wake of the British withdrawal

O’Malley felt Limerick was secure enough to briefly visit Dublin to meet Rory O’Connor – not, significantly, Lynch – and apprise him of the situation. O’Connor was encouraging but otherwise refused to commit himself, preferring instead, to O’Malley’s annoyance, to watch how things unfolded.

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Eoin O’Duffy

Meanwhile, Mulcahy and O’Duffy had travelled to Limerick on a mission of their own. The former had by then been promoted to Minister of Defence, with the latter stepping in his shoes as Chief of Staff. That two such senior figures had been sent showed how seriously the Provisional Government was taking the matter. Invites for anti-Treaty officers to meet with Mulcahy and O’Duffy in the Castle were declined, and the two GHQ men returned to Dublin with things as frayed as before.[24]

Within the Provisional Government, President Arthur Griffith was advocating a firm line, having come to believe that war was inevitable. In the only formal speech to the Cabinet that one witness, Ernest Blythe, remembered him making, Griffith argued that as they were now a government, with all the accompanying responsibilities, they had a duty to assert their authority.

Limerick Compromise

Collins, on whom the final decision rested (Blythe had no doubt about that), looked inclined to agree. Mulcahy then intervened, as Blythe recalled:

Mulcahy apparently had a great belief in Liam Lynch and a great confidence that he understood him and could rely on him, and he put forward the proposal of handing over the Limerick barracks to Liam Lynch, who would hold them at the disposal of the Government, subject to certain considerations.[25]

Relieved at finding a way to avoid conflict with his old comrades, Collins accepted the suggestion, much to Griffith’s annoyance.

On the 11th March, the citizens of Limerick learned “with intense relief,” in the words of the Limerick Chronicle, that a settlement had been reached. Although the newspaper did not know it, Lynch had taken the step of visiting the city to meet with officers of either faction, together and individually.

O’Malley gave no details in his memoirs, but whatever Lynch said was sufficient. Both sides pulled back from the brink and agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the city. The military barracks was to be in the hands of Pro-Treatyites until the building was entrusted to those local IRA units who had remained neutral during the manoeuvrings of the week before. Ironically, the last pro-Treaty men to leave the city were of the East Limerick Brigade, the only one in O’Malley’s Division to stay with the GHQ.[26]

The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.

limerick-ira
Anti-Treaty IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick

Press Relations

A month later, Lynch felt enough had been said about the Limerick flashpoint for him to set the record straight in a letter to the newspapers on the 27th April: “I have always avoided publicity, but my name has been brought forward so much recently that I am reluctantly forced to deal with the matter.”

For all the stated disdain for attention, Lynch was determined that he receive his due credit. It was less for his own sake and more to deny unearned plaudits claimed by others:

Regarding the statement by Beggar Bush’s Headquarters [GHQ] to the effect that they had done everything for unity in the Army, and that the other side had done everything possible to break it, I am sure all officers of high command in the Free State forces can verify my emphatic assertion that no officer did more than myself to maintain a united Army.

“It was a happy consummation for me to see about 700 armed troops on either side who were about to engage in mortal combat, eventually leave Limerick as comrades,” Lynch continued.

‘Comrades’ may have been an overstatement – O’Malley, for one, had threatened to arrest the dawdling officer in charge of the East Limerick men if they did not hurry up and go. But, as the Anti-Treatyites had been planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the Castle as a prelude to storming inside, ‘mortal combat’ had indeed been avoided.

people_griffith
Arthur Griffith

Lynch had choice things to say about Griffith, who he accused of trying “hard to press the issue in a manner which would have resulted in fearful slaughter.” Considering Griffith’s hard-line stance to the Cabinet, this was not an unreasonable allegation to make.

But it was the “Junior officers of the old G.H.Q. staff” who Lynch laid the blame for the Limerick standoff as well as the present lamentable conditions. For when Lynch was writing, the IRA Convention for March had been banned by Mulcahy on the orders of Griffith, forcing the previously reserved Lynch to decide exactly where he stood.[27]

A New Leadership

O’Malley did not consider the proscription of the IRA Convention to mean much to him. The Second Southern Division, after all, already outside of anyone else’s interference as far as he was concerned.

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Joe McKelvey

When O’Connor called him to his office in Dublin in an urgent dispatch, O’Malley accepted. There, he found Lynch and Deasy, along with some others, including Oscar Traynor and Joe McKelvey, the latter being the O/C of the Third Northern Division (covering Belfast, Antrim and Down) which had added its strength to Lynch and O’Malley’s two Southern ones.

Having previously played peacemaker, Lynch now threw caution to the winds. He suggested they hold the Convention anyway, regardless of what GHQ or the Provisional Government ordered. All the other IRA commands would be notified, whether they were friendly or not, so they could have at least the option of attending.

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Michael Kilroy

All agreed. Michael Kilroy, O/C of the Mayo Brigade, suggested that they elect a Chief of Staff, at least in the interim before the Convention. Lynch was selected, with O’Connor as Director of Engineering, Mellows as Quartermaster-General, Jim O’Donovan (he who had called Collins a traitor), as Director of Chemicals, Seán Russell as Director of Munitions, and O’Malley as Director of Organisation. If GHQ refused to uphold the Republic anymore, then they would create a counter-General Headquarters that would.

Lynch next informed the rest that they would now have to remain in Dublin. As Traynor was O/C of the Dublin Brigade, Lynch tasked him with providing headquarters for them in his city. Traynor suggested the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square. The opposition to the Treaty now had a leadership.[28]

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Parnell Square, Dublin (present day)

The Rule of .45

The Convention went ahead as originally intended on the 26th March in the Mansion House. Annie Farrington, the proprietress of Barry’s Hotel where many of the delegates stayed, remembered the “terrific excitement. There was great diversity of views and they were arguing it out.” Thankfully, none of these arguments ever came to blows.

Lynch was among the visitors. The others warned Farrington “not to say anything flippant before him, as he was very religious.” The respect they held for him was obvious: “They looked upon him as a saint.”[29]

Outside the Mansion House, an armoured car had been parked, its squat bulk contrasting against the cheery front of the building with scarlet geraniums in boxes set by tall lampposts and the freshly painted coat of arms above the main door. Inside was similarly contradictory, the beautiful rooms with their elegant furniture, crystal chandelier and oil-paintings of former Lord Lieutenants at odds with the grim, agitated mood of the delegates.

When one objected to the lack of rules concerning a particular suggestion, another man replied tersely: “We have the rule of .45,” meaning the .45 calibre automatics on prominent display in the Same Browne belts slung over many a tweed jacket. It was an impolitic remark but at least an honest one.[30]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Hardening Stance

Numbers-wise, the convention was a success. It had attracted – in the estimate of the Freeman’s Journal – 220 delegates, representing nineteen brigades, all of whom prepared to defy Mulcahy’s threat that any Army attendees would be suspended.[31]

In terms of soothing the nascent tensions, however, the event, in the words of Joseph Lawless, “proved itself to be a fiasco.” While Lawless did not attend the Convention – as an officer in the newly-formed National Army, he for one was mindful of Mulcahy’s warning – Lawless listened to numerous discussions in Fleming’s Hotel, another establishment where the delegates were either staying or called in at.

Despite his military commission, Lawless was able to mingle with his anti-Treaty friends. But there was little disguising the fact that they now regarded him as an enemy, however joking they were in their references to him as a ‘Free Stater’.

Lynch, Lawless thought when he saw him, “was concerned and somewhat perturbed at this turn of events.” Things were clearly not moving in a direction to his liking. Others were less finicky as they openly talked about their intentions to pack the Convention with delegates in order to shift the Army into a definite anti-Treaty stance. Not that the Convention would necessarily be the last word:

When it became apparent that their plane [sic] was unlikely to succeed, their interest in the convention lessened, and from the flippant remarks made about it, it seemed clear that they did not feel bound by anything that happened there unless it accorded with their own views.

A tendency to ignore unwanted rulings, even those from their own side, would prove a problem for the anti-Treaty IRA in its increasingly cavalier attitude towards discipline. Even more worrying was the talk at the Convention, however vague, of civil war. Even so, Lawless did not think that anyone believed that such a dire possibility could or would really occur.[32]

Reaffirmed Allegiances

Guards posted at the doors to the Mansion House had barred anyone from the press, ensuring that the public was left in the dark as to what had gone on inside. Shortly afterwards, the Convention attendees moved to amend that by publishing the resolutions they had passed, giving some indication to the rest of the country as to the general direction they intended to take the IRA:

  1. That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
  2. That it should be maintained as the Army of the Irish Republic, under an Executive appointed by the convention.
  3. That the Army shall be under the supreme control of such Executive, which shall draft a constitution for submission to a subsequent convention.[33]
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Richard Mulcahy

There was no room here for GHQ, the Dáil or anything that smacked of the Treaty. Forty years later, Deasy would have the opportunity to pose a question to Mulcahy, who confirmed that it had been on his advice that the Provisional Government banned the Convention, convinced as he was that it would only lead to further division and turmoil. Deasy argued back that such a heavy-handed move did nothing but offend those who were otherwise moderate in their opposition to the Treaty, Lynch included.

Whether Mulcahy had been correct, if unsuccessful, in trying to nip the problem in the bud, or if he unwittingly pushed many down the path he was hoping to avoid, is one of the many unanswerable questions that riddle this contentious period in Irish history.[34]

Influence and Respect

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Oscar Traynor

A temporary Executive which had been appointed during the Convention met the following day in Gardiner Street. After arriving late with the other members of the First Southern Division who were on the Executive, Lynch surprised the rest by announcing that there were too many Dubliners on the board and too few from his own Division.

Upset at this brusqueness, Oscar Traynor and Joseph O’Connor, both officers in the Dublin IRA, withdrew from the meeting. It took a day or two for the pair to swallow their pride and return to help the rest of the Executive iron out the details for the next convention on the 9th April.[35]

Lynch once again had his way, when three of his allies – Deasy, O’Donoghue and another Corkman, Tom Hales – were among the sixteen men elected to the Executive. When asked beforehand as to the reasons for the April convention, Lynch replied that he wanted to ensure that those particular three were with him on the new ruling board.

It was a measure of the trust in which he had in his Corkonian comrades. At the end of this latest convention, the new leadership body met and reaffirmed Lynch as their Chief of Staff – not that there were any other contenders – with Deasy replacing him as O/C of the First Southern Division.[36]

Despite this easy assumption of power, Lynch’s authority was not quite as assured as his rank might apply. The problem was, in the opinion of Joseph O’Connor, that while there were many worthy individuals on the Executive, none – Lynch included – were strong enough to rule the others.

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Group photograph of anti-Treaty IRA members at the Mansion House, 1922, with Liam Lynch (fourth from the left in the front row), Florence O’Donoghue (left of Lynch) and Liam Deasy (right of Lynch)

Fault lines

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Rory O’Connor

Consequently, cracks emerged, out of which two main factions were formed, with neither feeling it necessary to accommodate the other when they disagreed. “The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor remembered the sorry situation.[37]

This was despite the advantage Lynch held through his position as Chief of Staff. According to O’Malley, Lynch “possessed the same influence as any of the other members, although perhaps his words were listened to with added respect.”[38]

But it might be equally true to say that Lynch had no more influence than the others, and even that was often grudgingly allowed.

As for respect, it was to be in short supply, as Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue found themselves under suspicion by their more hard-line Executive peers, most notably Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Séumas Robinson. While the latter group had lost all respect for former comrades like Collins, Mulcahy and O’Duffy, they gave only scant more regard towards Lynch and his cohorts, seeing them as well-meaning but lacking in the necessary zeal.[39]

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride summed up this attitude of wary condescension in his memoirs. The future government minister admitted that he did not know Lynch very well, only that he appeared to be the strong, silent type. MacBride assumed he was capable, otherwise he would not have risen to where he was. The officers under his command, at least, respected him considerably. But, all the same, MacBride could not help regarding his Chief of Staff as, at heart, a bit of a compromiser.[40]

Which may say more about MacBride, but it showed the difficulties Lynch would face in guiding his men through the difficult times ahead – men who would show little patience for any sort of guidance.

To be continued in: The Chains of Trust: Liam Lynch and the Slide into Civil War, 1922 (Part II)

References

[1] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992), pp. 312-5

[2] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 375-6

[3] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 27-30 ; Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 36,251/19

[4] NLI, MS 36,251/18

[5] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7a/5

[6] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, NLI, MS 31,239

[7] Deasy, pp. 33-4

[8] Ibid, p. 95

[9] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,244

[10] Ibid, MS 31,240/1

[11] Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/22

[12] Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

[13] Deasy, p. 32

[14] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 93

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 96 ; O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[16] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981), p. 179

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 237

[18] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 70-2

[19] Ibid, p. 72

[20] Limerick Chronicle, 18/02/1922

[21] Ibid, 07/03/1922

[22] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 76-8

[23] Limerick Chronicle, 09/03/1922

[24] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 80-1

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 142-3

[26] Limerick Chronicle, 11/03/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 82

[27] Irish Independent, 27/04/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 81-82

[28] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 83-5

[29] Farrington, Annie (BMH / WS 749), pp. 5-6

[30] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 148

[31] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[32] Lawless, Joseph V. (BMH / WS 1,043), pp. 436-7

[33] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[34] Deasy, pp. 38-9

[35] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 3-4

[36] MacEoin, p. 291 ; O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 224

[37] O’Connor, pp. 4, 10

[38] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 86

[39] Deasy, pp. 39-40

[40] MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005), p. 93

 

Bibliography

Books

Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981)

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

 

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Limerick Chronicle

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Farrington, Annie, WS 749

Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1,043

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

 

National Library of Ireland Collections

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Liam Lynch Papers

 

University College Dublin Archive

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

The Rift

There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.

Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – where he had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.

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Arthur Griffith

“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”

He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”

To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.

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Count Plunkett

Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.

Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.

It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that, however, for some, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.

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The Mansion House, site of the Plunkett Convention

A Way Out?

This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:

…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.[1]

Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.

At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.[2]

William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause.

He saw Father Michael O’Flanagan move across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.[3]

The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.[4]

Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.[5]

Coming to Heel

As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.[6]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.

The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.

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Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.[7]

According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.

Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.

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Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.

O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:

For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.[8]

There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.[9]

However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.[10]

(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.[11])

The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:

Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.[12]

Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.

Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.[13]

Surveying the Aftermath

In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:

  • An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
  • A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
  • A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
  • An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting.
  • A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
  • A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
  • The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, owned by Patrick Pearse.
  • A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.[14]

As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:

While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.[15]

The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.

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Liam de Róiste

Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.[16]

Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.

To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.

Committee Politics

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William O’Brien

The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.

When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.

And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.

Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.

O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.

Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.

When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”

Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.[17]

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Gresham Hotel, Dublin, modern

The Liberty Clubs

Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.

On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.plunkett

Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.[18]

Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.[19]

Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.[20]

Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.[21]

The Clubs Take Root

Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.[22]

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Count Plunkett at work

Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.[23]

John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”[24]

0209Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.[25]

Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.[26]

Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.[27]

Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.[28]

Teething Troubles

Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:

The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.

I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.

I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.[29]

The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:

It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.[30]

The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.

Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.[31]sinn_fc3a9in_newspaper

William O’Brien

The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.

He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.

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Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.

Efforts towards public unity had been made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.

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Longford election poster for Joseph McGuinness, May 1917

McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.

Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.

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Arthur Griffith

A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.

Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.

Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.[32]

Trouble at Beresford Place

Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”[33]

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Jack Plunkett, mugshot

Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.

Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.

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Crowd gathered at Beresford Place to hear Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha

When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.

The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.

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Arrested

As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.

Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.

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Inspector Mills being moved to a stretcher after being struck on the head

After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.

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John Mills

Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”

It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.[34]

Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.[35]

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George Oliver Plunkett (front right) and his brother Jack (front left), with some other prisoners, upon their release in June 1917

‘Hot and Strong’

The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.

So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.banc-sf-1917-1024x824

Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:

…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.[36]

Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:

…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.[37]

Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.

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Cathal Brugha

Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”

Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.

Walking the Plank

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Tommy Dillon

As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.

Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.[38]

It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.

O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.

“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.

“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.[39]

Hard Truths

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Seán T. O’Kelly

Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.

With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.

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3 Mountjoy Square Dublin

By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.

Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.

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Inside 3 Mountjoy Square

Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.

It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.[40]

‘A Soldier and a Statesman’

Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.

The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.

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The Round Room, Mansion House

This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.

As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:

Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.

Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.

Eamon-de-Valera
Éamon de Valera, in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer

The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.

When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”

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Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera

The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.[41]

The New Leadership

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Helena Molony

Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.[42]

The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.[43]

Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.

With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.

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Count Plunkett (front row, far left), Father Michael O’Flanagan (back row, far left), Éamon de Valera (front row, centre) and Arthur Griffith (besides O’Flanagan)

The End

Both Griffith ad Plunkett were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with the elections of the former as one of the dual Vice-Presidents (Father O’Flanagan being the other) and the latter to the twenty-four-strong Executive Council. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.

Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.

Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.

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(From left to right) Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Laurence O’Neill

Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”

Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).

“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.

Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.

“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.

“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.

“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”

There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.[44]

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Members of the first Dáil, 1919, with Count Plunkett in the front row, fourth from the left, with an umbrella-carrying Cathal Brugha besides him

Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.

The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.[45]

But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[4] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 91-2

[5] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 258

[6] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, p. 133

[7] O’Shiel, p. 32 ; O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), Part I, p. 63

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 148

[9] FJ, 20/04/1917

[10] Dillon Plunkett, p. 258 ; FJ, 20/04/1917 ; New Ireland, 28/04/1917

[11] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 394 ; Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 53 ; Molony, Helena (BMH / WS 391)

[12] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 30-1

[13] FJ, 20/04/1917

[14] IT, 28/04/1917

[15] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), p. 220

[16] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698) Part II, p. 168

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, pp. 112-4

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 11,383/6/12

[19] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/13

[20] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/14,16

[21] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/17

[22] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/16

[23] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/10

[24] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/07

[25] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/8

[26] Ibid, MS 11,383/3/15

[27] Ibid, MS 11,383/11/5

[28] Ibid, MS 11,383/6/26

[29] Cork Examiner, 15/06/1917

[30] Ibid, 06/06/1917

[31] Nugent, pp. 93, 95

[32] O’Brien, pp. 130-133

[33] Plunkett Dillon, p. 260

[34] Ibid ; Irish Times, 11/06/1917, 12/06/1917, 17/11/1917

[35] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[36] Dillon, p. 395

[37] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8544

[38] Dillon, pp. 395-6

[39] O’Brien, pp. 136-7

[40] Freeman’s Journal, 26/10/1917

[41] O’Shiel, pp. 85-8 ; O’Brien, p. 102

[42] Molony, pp. 50-1

[43] Dillon, p. 399

[44] Irish Times, 03/03/1922

[45] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 268, 308

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

New Ireland

 

Books

O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

 

Bureau of Military Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Molony, Helena, WS 391

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

 

National Library of Ireland Collections

Count Plunkett Papers

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

 

Article

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

 

 

Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

A New Voice

“It is difficult for us at present to visualise the circumstances under which this Convention was held,” so the Monsignor Michael J. Curran recounted in later years about the Plunkett Convention that took place on the 19th April 1917. The closest thing Ireland had had to a ruling party since the days of Parnell, the Irish Parliament Party (IPP), was a spent force by then, drained and discredited, but who or what would take its place was by no means certain.

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Count Plunkett

The most visible alternative for the moment was George Noble Plunkett. The 66-year old Papal Count had been better known in the past as a celebrated art scholar whose comfortable life of genteel indolence, along with much else in the country, had been upturned in the Easter Week of 1916. His eldest son had been executed for his part in the Rising, the other two imprisoned, and himself stripped of his National Museum directorship and exiled to England.

The wheel had turned yet again upon his election in January 1917 to the parliamentary seat of North Roscommon. Plunkett had not even needed to be present for the most part – he only returned to Ireland in the last few days before polling – with most of the work being done by an impromptu alliance of groups and individuals, united in their frustration at the political stagnation. Much had been promised by the IPP in the form of Home Rule, and yet Ireland was as much an unwilling ward of the British Crown as ever.

Immediately after his election, the Count had transformed from a respectable gentleman to a firebrand as he lambasted the failings of the IPP while half-promising, half-predicting a cleansing of the country’s woes with the certainty of a Biblical prophet. That attempts had been made, almost certainly by the IPP, to discredit him only inadvertently confirmed his status as standard-bearer of the new movement. Yet not everyone could look at the Count and agree with such elevation.

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Police reports to Dublin Castle, while noting the apathy that gripped the Irish Party, commented on how “the Count as a party leader does not appear to inspire enthusiasm.” In that, the police, and many of Plunkett’s so-called allies, were unknowingly in accord.

Clouding matters further was there had been no elections, either for Parliament or local government bodies, since before the start of the war in Europe. These public bodies were left with men (they were invariably men) who did not necessarily speak for their constituents anymore, particularly the young, who had gone through such a dramatic transformation in the wake of the 1916 Rising. What opposition there was in Ireland to the IPP or British rule was unfocused, fragmentary and, as often as not, at odds with each other.

If nothing else, the convention called by Count Plunkett was the first attempt to voice the new feeling in the country and hear what it had to say. If it could somehow smooth over the differences in the various opposition groups as well, then so much the better.[1]

Who’s Who

Differentiating these factions was not always easy, for in their hostility to the IPP and the desire to break the British connection, they could often appear indistinguishable to each other. Nonetheless, several distinct strands of thought could be discerned from the morass of post-1916 feeling:

  • Sinn Féin, as envisioned by its founder, Arthur Griffith, with a preference for constitutional methods.
  • Sinn Féin but remoulded on more Republican lines, an option popular among those who had fought in the Rising.
  • The Liberty Clubs, set up by Count Plunkett as a hard-line alternative.[2]

Another group was the Irish Nation League. Formed in Derry in July 1916 as an anti-Partition lobby. It had spread from the Ulster counties to the rest of the country, holding a rally in Dublin in September which had been attracted considerable attention. But that had been the high point for the League. Now it was stagnating for lack of drive and a failure to secure the newly popular radical ground. The League’s mistake had been to try and replace the Irish Party at the time when the IPP was a failed model.[3]

Of these bodies, the Liberty Clubs were the most recent, being formed from May 1917 while riding the momentum of the Plunkett Convention from the month before. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, was the oldest and enjoyed the benefits of being an already established name. It was perhaps only fitting that the two men at the heads of these two groups, Plunkett and Griffith respectively, should be at loggerheads from the start.

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Arthur Griffith

They stood on the opposite ends of the Nationalist spectrum, the Count demanding immediate action, against a more cautious Griffith. But there were times when the animosity spilled from the strictly political to the unpleasantly personal. According to the Count’s daughter, Geraldine, in her not-unbiased memoirs, Griffith had written “several savage letters”, accusing him of making political capital out of his dead son, to which the Count had managed to reply “with his habitual courtesy.”[4]

At the Plunkett Convention, however, its namesake would prove to be the aggressive one, attempting what amounted to a hostile takeover of Sinn Féin, forcing Griffith on the defensive.

‘Sinn Féin’?

Their initial point of contention was absentionism. The Count knew exactly where he stood there: he would not under any circumstances take his seat for North Roscommon at Westminster. As well as making this publicly clear, he expected his allies to commit to the same principle. At a meeting in Plunkett’s house in February, the trade unionist William O’Brien voiced his concerns that taking such a definite stand so soon would risk alienating the wider Irish public. He was taken aback when Griffith, who was also present, agreed.[5]

O’Brien had reason to be surprised, for Griffith had long pioneered absentionism as a means of separating the country from Britain. For this, Geraldine and her brother Joseph – the future 1916 signatory – had admired him, along with his “fine historical sense….and policy of self-reliance” for Ireland. But in the new post-Rising country, Griffith’s position was more tenuous than he cared to admit.[6]

‘Sinn Féin’ had been popularised, in one of those quirks of history, by the British authorities who had labelled the Irish Volunteers as such due to the perception of the actual Sinn Féin as a quixotic cause. The journalist Darrell Figgis remembered how the pre-1916 Sinn Féin “was a title of opprobrium. It was a title of a small minority, considered to be more noisy than numerous, expostulant but powerless.”[7]

This was a view shared by Seán T. O’Kelly, who estimated that Sinn Féin, of which he was a joint-honorary secretary, had had no more than a hundred members in Dublin before the Rising.[8]

And now – what a difference! Sinn Féin Clubs were everywhere, with affiliation fees pouring into the head offices of 6 Harcourt Street, allowing Griffith the luxury of keeping two paid organisers on the road. That the front-page header of the Nationality (the latest newsletter of his) bore the subtitle ‘edited by Arthur Griffith’, the first time his name had been so displayed, showed how much of an asset his name had become.[9]

sinn_fc3a9in_bank_at_no-_6_harcourt_street_dublin_following_shelling-1-e1458059722107
Sinn Féin headquarters, 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

And it had been thanks to Dublin Castle’s misnomer of the Easter Rising as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ that it was now the leading political brand in Ireland. This was despite Sinn Féin having had nothing to do with the insurrection, a misunderstanding that Griffith was in no hurry to correct, much to the annoyance of those who had actually been involved in the fighting and were resentful of his piggybacking on their efforts.

Besides, Griffith was seen as far too moderate for their tastes. In Count Plunkett, they saw a more agreeably hard-line totem around which to rally.[10]

Traveler Digital Camera

The Game of Politics

Some disdained the use of politics altogether. In Frongoch Camp, those prisoners who were initiates in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) held a series of meeting to determine their future course of action. At one, attended by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, it was agreed that, upon being freed, they would bring the IRB into the realm of politics in order to best serve the national cause. After all, news from Ireland told of how the IPP was weak and their own popularity strong, so the time seemed ripe to replace the old establishment with one more in tune with their aims.

One IRB member, Eamon T. Dore, had not been invited to this particular meeting, which he attributed to a falling-out he had had with the increasingly influential Collins. In any case, Dore did not approve of the decision, fearing that the IRB would be enmeshed with the usual intrigue and compromise of politics.

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Frongoch Camp

Dore met with Mulcahy and another Frongoch alumni/IRB member, Michael Staines, in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, after their release. It was February 1917 and the North Roscommon by-election was underway. Mulcahy persuaded the other two to come with him to Griffith’s house in the North Strand, as he wanted his advice on what to do next. Evidently a generous man with his time, Griffith told them that, in his opinion, they should focus on bringing Ireland’s case to the Peace Conference, set to be held in Paris after the war in Europe was over.

This was not to Dore’s liking. He argued that if Britain won the war, it would never give Ireland a fair chance and, if it lost, well, then it would be in no position to tell them what to do anyway. To Dore, this exchange was symptomatic of the sort of woolly thinking that was all too common amongst men like Griffith.[11]

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Rory O’Connor

Even those willing to lend a hand in the political arena disdained those who were too involved. Laurence Nugent had helped organise the Plunkettite campaign in North Roscommon. He was close to Rory O’Connor, one of the few Rising leaders who had escaped imprisonment. For his part, O’Connor was working both on the Count’s behalf and in helping to reorganise the Irish Volunteers. Through O’Connor, Nugent witnessed the attitudes of many who adapted to the new political landscape while remaining contemptuous of it.

“We were not politicians, although we were now well initiated into the game of politics,” was how Nugent put it. The politicians were a different breed: “They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines,” preferring instead the passive resistance espoused by Sinn Féin.

Nothing could have been further from the minds of those like O’Connor who were using the period of calm to prepare for the next round in the fight against Britain, one that would not be confined to Dublin but with the whole of Ireland as its battlefield. As O’Connor had said of his men when he saw that the Rising was doomed: “Send them home. We shall want them again.”[12]

Keeping it in the Family

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Thomas Dillon

While waiting for the resumption of war, O’Connor was hard at work arranging the Plunkett Convention for April. He was helped in this by Thomas Dillon, the Count’s son-in-law. Dillon had married Geraldine on Easter Sunday 1916, following which the newlyweds had watched from their hotel balcony on Sackville Street as her brothers marched up towards the General Post Office (GPO) at the head of their men to begin the Rising. When Geraldine asked to help inside the GPO, it was O’Connor who was sent out to turn her away on Joseph’s behalf.[13]

O’Connor was also romantically involved with a Plunkett daughter, and had worn throughout that turbulent week in Dublin a holy medal in his pocket, given to him by Fiona Plunkett. He would remain on close terms with the family up until his execution in the Civil War. According to Nugent, Josephine Plunkett, the Count’s wife, acted as go-between for O’Connor while he was occupying the Four Courts in 1922, as “speaking to her was the same as speaking to Rory.”

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Rory O’Connor with the Count’s son, Jack and George

He and Fiona never got as far as marriage, with Geraldine describing their romance as a “very frustrating” one for her sister. Nugent, as O’Connor’s friend, put it more delicately: “the bullet that killed him in Mountjoy affected the life of a lady member of a great Irish family.”[14]

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Michael Collins

Another budding revolutionary leader who benefitted from the support of the Plunketts was Michael Collins. Geraldine first met him when he was a “very tired young man”, newly arrived from London. He was put to work handling their rent books, answering official letters and filing away papers. Collins took lunch with the Plunketts and quickly made an impression, at least on Geraldine, in whose opinion: “no one ever had a better clerk.”[15]

(Not every member of the family had such a fond image of the Big Fella. Eoghan Plunkett, Geraldine’s nephew, remembered the future hero as a “pup, a nasty piece of work.” Among his sins was avoiding the living-room carpet in favour of the bare part of the floor in order to make more noise. However, Eoghan would not have been born then and his stories are second-hand).[16]

Michael Collins

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

Under Collins’ supervision, the muddled financial books began to take some semblance of order (no one in the family could be accused of being too worldly). But Collins did not intend to shuffle papers and juggle sums forever. He had been recommended to Joseph by the IRB in London, of which Collins had been a member, and he continued to act in that capacity in Dublin, helping Joseph to organise the embryonic uprising while serving as his bodyguard in a measure of the growing trust between them.[17]

Collins became a common sight on the family property at Larkfield, south-west of Dublin. The Volunteers who were based there would see him passing as they churned out shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades in preparation for the coming insurrection. He impressed them with his “sense of hurry and earnestness,” while causing annoying with his brusqueness and amateurish attempts to instruct them in their work.[18]

Collins’ lack of tact did not seem to have improved by the time of the North Roscommon by-election at the start of 1917. “The reactions of many being that he was a typical Corkman – some people thought he was a pusher [as in pushy] – and he was resented at that time,” according to William O’Brien, who met Collins while they were both assisting in the Plunkett campaign.[19]

On the other hand, another canvasser, Kevin O’Shiel accredited Collins – along with Griffith and Father Michael O’Flanagan – with the smooth running of the election by convincing his more bellicose colleagues of the gains to be had through the electoral process.[20]

Collins’ influence was such that many observers attributed the rise of the Liberty Clubs not so much to Count Plunkett but to him and the IRB. To Richard Walsh, a future TD and a member of the IRB himself at the time, the Clubs were “the public or outward expression” of the IRB which sponsored the Clubs in order “to give public expression and support to the IRB’s policy of physical force.”

Certainly, the militant philosophy espoused by the Clubs was in line with the IRB’s. Furthermore, as Walsh described, “Collins’ position as Secretary to Count Plunkett meant that he was acting as Secretary of the Liberty Clubs.”[21]

Dillon also linked the growth of the Clubs to Collins and the IRB:

The Liberty Clubs proposed by Count Plunkett were being founded, probably [emphasis mine] under the aegis of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Michael Collins had begun to reorganise throughout the country immediately after his release from internment in Frongoch, at the end of 1916.[22]

The use of word ‘probably’ indicates that not even the Count’s son-in-law was entirely sure what was going on.

Not so easily impressed was Dore, whose account of how he and Collins came to the Plunkett Convention puts the latter in a different light to the near-omniscient mastermind as he is often portrayed. Collins, Dore, Staines and some others were hanging about Dublin one lazy afternoon when they heard there was something going on at the Mansion House. Arriving late, they were only allowed in because Dore knew one of the doormen.[23]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Union of Advanced Thought

Delegates from the various public bodies throughout Ireland arrived at the Mansion House on the 19th April as per the instructions sent out by Count Plunkett. Admission tickets were checked at the doors by members of the Irish Volunteers acting as stewards, a sign of how the closely the new radical politics and the military men were in concord.

The large number of female attendees was notable, as were those from the younger male generation, politics in Ireland previously being the reserve of elderly or middle-aged men. Even the Freeman’s Journal, an organ of the IPP and thus a bitter critic of the Count, recognised that something exceptional was taking place with its headline NATIONALISM – NEW STYE – COUNT PLUNKETT’S “UNION” OF ADVANCED THOUGHT.

In keeping with the mood of the country, Sinn Féin badges were conspicuously displayed throughout the hall. Rousing cries of “Up Sinn Féin” greeted Count Plunkett as he made his way on the platform to take the chair. The callers may not have done so had they known what the Count truly thought of Sinn Fein and Griffith, and vice versa.

Plunkett began by thanking his guests for attending, particularly those who had had to travel from great distance. He then asked for a vote of commemoration to be made: “That this assembly, at its first meeting, desire to honour the memory of the men who have died for Ireland.”

The audience stood in respect as the vote was passed. The second request was also accepted without condition: “In honour of those who faced death for Ireland and who are now in prison as felons, and those men and women who had been exiled.”

Unstated, but palatable, was the knowledge that among these said men were members of the Plunkett family: Joseph, executed before a firing squad, Jack and George, both sentenced to lengthy penal sentences, and their father, the Count himself, banished to England until two months ago. After all, as Griffith had cruelly (if not altogether inaccurately) said, Plunkett had built a fine career out of such loss.

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Joseph and the Count Plunkett

A Free-Souled Nation

Count Plunkett said he would not insult these captives in question by asking for their release, insisting instead that they should be treated as prisoners of war. These men should be paid at least the same respect that a German or any other foreign POW would be treated, instead of degraded with the status of criminals.

“It is an honour,” a voice interrupted from the assembly. Plunkett said that he knew that these men took it as such and that they were prepared to suffer accordingly but – in a statement that was especially meaningful coming from him – “we should not suffer it for them.”

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George and Jack Plunkett upon surrender, 1916

After the resulting applause had died down, Plunkett congratulated his audience and Ireland upon the occasion of this great and representative gathering. It was hard to realise that this was the first free assembly of Irishmen on their own soil for many a century (cheers). It was the one of the first assemblies in the history of the country in which the leading note was a disregard for all aliens (cheers).

“In your name,” continued the Count, warming to his theme, “I made a series of declarations which you can assent by standing up. They are that –”

  • We proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation.
  • We assert Ireland’s right to freedom from all foreign control, defying the authority of any foreign Parliament to make laws for the country.
  • We affirm the right of the Irish people to declare their will in law, and enforce their decisions in their own land.
  • To maintain the status of Ireland as a distinct nation, we demand representation at the coming Peace Conference in Paris.
  • It is the duty of those nations taking part in the said Conference to guarantee the liberty of small nations like Ireland.
  • Our claim to complete independence is founded on human right and the law of nations.
  • We declare that Ireland has never yielded in our power to attain complete liberty.

Each of these declarations was greeted with hearty cheers and the standing in assent by all those present. Further capturing the mood were the two women who, after the lunch break, draped a tricolour over Plunkett’s table on the podium, prompting fresh acclaim and refrains of ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week’.

A New Organisation?

So far, so good – nothing said had been met by anything other than approval and enthusiasm. Plunkett introduced the two Labour delegates from the Dublin Trades Council. Its vice-president, Thomas Farren, wished God-speed to the work started that day.

“We believe,” Farren said, “that this is the start of a pure political organisation for this country. Organised labour in Ireland is prepared at all times to make any sacrifice necessary on behalf of an Irish Republic.”

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William O’Brien

The other Labour man, William O’Brien, spoke next. He was brief but precise, with a promise to adhere to every word of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, making this the only explicitly republican – as opposed to merely separatist – utterance made at the event.

After the hour for lunch, the Count resumed proceedings by announcing his wish to explain his proposals for the national organising of Ireland. He added that he was not calling it the reorganisation as the country within their time had never been organised – at least, not in any way to speak on behalf of its people (hear, hear).

“Two things the Irishman could not separate from life were,” said the Count grandly, “first, his reverence and subjection to God, and, secondly, his duty to his fellows in establishing liberty.”

Plunkett proceeded to outline how this establishment of liberty would be done. Clubs or circles would be formed in villages, towns and parishes, under a central body in Dublin and supported by an annual subscription from each member.

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The Round Room of the Mansion House, where the Plunkett Convention was held (this is a session of the Dáil in 1921)

A New Name?

Their first business would be to prepare for future elections. “However long delayed,” the Count said, relishing the imminent fate of the hapless IPP, “the axe will fall, and political executions will be considerable.”

In the lead-up to this, he continued, they must prepare themselves. Every parish in the country was to have groups of men ready to secure the polling booths and ensure that the will of the people be carried out.

Luckily, a new generation of young men had emerged and were standing for Ireland (hear, hear). They could not vote but they had the future of the country in their hands, and so should be used accordingly as a national army (cheers).

Now at his own demagogic, Plunkett strove to leave his audience in no doubt as to the immediacy of the situation:

They might be required to at any moment to have a movement going like lightning across the whole of Ireland, stirring the whole people, making them as one man, establishing a series of resistance which no government could ignore and which no government could withstand.

There might be, the Count admitted, almost as an afterthought, certain impediments to these ambitions of his, namely the presence of similar societies already in existence. In this regard, Plunkett was prepared to be accommodating – within certain parameters.

Any such group would have a right to be included in the new organisation, providing that they adhere to certain standards, namely abstentionist and a demand for nothing short of complete independence for Ireland. If they agreed to these terms, then they would be accepted as a valid part of the organisation. It was an offer of assimilation that the Count clearly believed to be a generous one.

Offhandedly, he added, he would be prepared to accept a new name to fit this new organisation. Most of the audience would have assumed that this was simply the Count thinking aloud. They would have had little idea that his stated willingness to discard old names – names like, say, Sinn Féin – amounted to a declaration of war on some others who were present.

A New Alliance?

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Seán Milroy

A close friend and ally of Griffith’s, Seán Milroy, spoke next. He moved that there existed an urgent need for united action between such bodies as Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish-American Alliance, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Labour Party.

In order to effect this coalition, a body to be called the Executive Council of the Irish National Alliance should be formed, consisting of five members elected by the convention, with three more appointed by each of the groups involved. Such level of detail suggested that Milroy, and possibly Griffith, had spent some time thinking this out beforehand.

From there, they would begin the process of contesting the next elections and presenting Ireland’s case at the coming Peace Conference. The culmination of this broad front would be the formation, at the earliest possible date, of a constitutional assembly to be known as the Council of the Irish Nation. Griffith seconded this motion, warning the audience that unless they banded together, the IPP would return to prominence.

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Herbert Pim

Herbert Pim also weighed in with his support, saying that he spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, one of the groups responsible for these proceedings. Had it not been for Sinn Féin, Pim said, this convention would not now be happening. Speaking as the self-confessed jealous guardian of the Sinn Féin name, he joked that it would be a pity to lose a brand so distasteful a flavour in the mouths of their Saxon friends (laughter).

There was but the slightest of elbowing here, with Plunkett’s advocacy of an entirely new organisation rubbing up against Pim’s reminder of the work Sinn Féin had already accomplished. Still, neither Milroy, Griffith nor Pim had ventured anything irretrievably at odds with the Count’s grand vision.

A New Problem

Had the mood been different, the relationships more trusting, this might have been taken as healthy discourse, different takes on essentially the same thing. Instead, the Count heard their stated preference for a confederation of groups, as opposed to his single centralised one, as a sop to those who were not yet sold on the abstentionist policy. It was not a point Plunkett was interested in stepping back from.

Standing his ground, Plunkett told them that they had pledged against sending their representatives to Westminster. From now on, Ireland must approach the Peace Conference as nothing other than a separate nation. He added a warning that perhaps doubled as a threat: did they think the young men of Ireland would support them otherwise?

There was only one sacrifice, the Count continued, to be asked of an Irish patriot, and that was to put his life at the behest of the nation (hear, hear). He had not left his comfortable position as Director of the National Museum to be told his policy was too advanced or that he was alone in his views.

(Technically, Plunkett had not so much left the Museum as was fired, but no one was churlish enough to point this out.)

He was *not* alone, he assured the hall. They must show England that they were not half-hearted, that they would resolutely hold on to the principles for which their martyred compatriots, his son included, had died (cheers).

Accordingly, Plunkett moved for the following resolution:

That we, the assembly of Irish Independence, desire to establish an organisation to unite Irish advanced opinion and provide for action, as the result of its conclusions.

The Convention secretary was at hand to second it. The resolution for a new organisation was declared carried, but the accompanying cries of ‘no, no’ from the hall indicated that this was not a unanimous, or even popular, decision. The tension gestating beneath the surface, away from public sight since the Roscommon election two months ago, was finally rising to the fore, ready to ooze out.[24]

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

 

References

[1] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 218-9 ; Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8543

[2] Brennan, Robert (BMH / WS 779), p. 10

[3] Irish Times, 04/08/1916, 11/09/1916 ; O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part IV) pp. 144-5

[4] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 257

[5] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 146-7

[6] Plunkett Dillon, p. 257

[7] Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?]), p. 98

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 118

[9] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 395 ; McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

[10] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1776), p. 101

[11] Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 392), pp. 5-6

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 68-9

[13] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 222, 226

[14] Ibid, p. 230, 313 ; Nugent, pp. 44, 271-2

[15] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 194

[16] McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (accessed 08/01/2017)

[17] Plunkett Dillon, p. 195

[18] Good, p. 6

[19] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go, p. 144

[20] O’Shiel, pp. 9-11

[21] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), p. 37

[22] Dillon, p. 395

[23] Dore, p. 8

[24] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

 

Bibliography

Newspaper

Freeman’s Journal

 

Books

Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])

O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

 

Bureau of Military Statements

Brennan, Robert, WS 779

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

 

Articles

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (Accessed 08/01/2017)

 

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

Tensions Brew

In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.

The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.

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Count Plunkett

According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”

Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.

But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”[1]

Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.

Kevin O’Shiel

His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:

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Kevin O’Shiel

Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.

The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.

The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”

When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”[2]

O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.

William O’Brien

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.

Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”

(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)

Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.

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William O’Brien

O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”[3] – this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.

(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)

The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.[4]

Factions

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Michael Collins

Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.

The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).

A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.

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Arthur Griffith

He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”

O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.

Locking Horns

The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.

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Rory O’Connor

Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.

The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.

It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.

As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.[5]

Disclosure and a Concert

For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:

We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.

The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”[6]

If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:

People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.

It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].

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His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.

With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.

The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.[7]

Thrown Out

True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.

In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?

Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.

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The Mansion House, Dublin

This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.

The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.

Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.[8]

An Announcement in Sligo

Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.

On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett

He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.[9]

First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.

Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).

Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:

Dear Sir,

Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:

  • Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
  • To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
  • To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.

If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?

It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.

Please do what you can as soon as possible.[10]

The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.[11] 

Rejects

The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:

The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.

At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.

It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”

Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.

Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.

If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?[12]

The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?

Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.

Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:

To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.

As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.

As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”

Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.

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(left to right) Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Arthur Griffith and Austin Stack

An Apple of Discord

Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”

Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”[13]

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Priests  at Maynooth University

Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”[14]

At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”[15]

Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”[16]

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Count Plunkett

‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’

The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:

Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.

“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.

Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”

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Father Michael O’Flanagan, one of the Count’s most ardent clerical supporters

Also writing to the Irish Independent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.

A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”[17]

A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”[18]

Moving Onwards

plunkettCount Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.

The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.

In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.

“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”[19]

How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.

Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

 

References

[1] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 29-30

[2] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 22-3

[4] O’Brien, (WS 1776), pp. 98-101, 108 ; O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[5] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 135 ; O’Brien (WS 1776), pp. 101-103, 108 ; Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 21-2

[6] FJ, 03/03/1917

[7] Irish Times, 06/03/1917 ; Irish Independent, 06/03/1917

[8] FJ, 06/03/1917

[9] Irish Times, 19/03/1917

[10] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,383/3/11

[11] O’Shiel, pp. 33-4

[12] Cork Examiner, 02/04/1917 ; Sligo Independent, 14/04/1917 ; Irish Independent, 28/03/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 16/04/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[14] NLI, MS 11,383/4/6

[15] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/3

[16] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/2

[17] Irish Independent, 17/04/1917

[18] Ibid, 18/04/1917

[19] NLI, MS 11,383/1/7

 

Bibliography

Books

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

 

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Evening Telegraph

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sligo Independent

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

 

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Rising: Count Plunkett and His Family on the Road to Revolution, 1913-7 (Part I)

Failure to Comply

royal-dublin-society-rds-90It did not seem like much, that small article on the fourth page in the Freeman’s Journal for the 15th January 1917, tucked away on the top right-hand corner as if the newspaper was faintly embarrassed by it. Under the headline ROYAL DUBLIN SOCIETY – COUNT PLUNKETT’S MEMBERSHIP, the Society announced its call on the member in question to consider his position:

The Council of the Royal Dublin Society [RDS] intend a meeting to bring forward a resolution calling upon Count Plunkett to resign his membership of the Society. Under the statutes of the Society, if a member fails to comply with such a resolution within fourteen days he ceased to be a member of the society.

Having delivered the message, the Freeman was moved to comment in an editorial on the same page:

We hold no brief for Count Plunkett, but common justice urges us to point out that not only has he never been tried upon any charge, but that no charge has even been preferred against him.

In a moment of panic he was ordered by the Government to remove his residence to England – he was not even interned – but nothing that any fair-minded man could regard as a trial was afforded him. Yet the “non-political” Royal Dublin Society now proposes to pass their sentence upon him.[1]

The newspaper felt strongly enough to reprint the story the following day, accompanied by some strongly-worded letters from its readers. One compared the RDS to the brutish Lieutenant Hepenstall who had helped crush the 1798 Rebellion with wanton torture. Another sarcastically wondered if Plunkett had been accused of pickpocketing in the Society’s reading-room or perhaps of stealing an umbrella. Because otherwise: “It seems atrocious to thus blacken a man’s character, without even mentioning the crime of which he is accused.”[2]

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Count George Noble Plunkett

Forced Resignation

Nonetheless, the RDS pressed on remorselessly with its brand of rough justice. Three hundred of its members arrived at a meeting in Leinster House on the 18th January, making it the largest of its gatherings in many a year. The determination of many of the attendees was evident, as several aged and almost infirm gentlemen pressed on despite needing to be helped out of their motorcars amidst the snow and slush of a winter’s day.

Mindful of the sensitivity of its event, the RDS Council did not admit any representatives from the press. But if they had assumed the meeting would pass by without fuss or challenge, then they had misread the mood of its members, many of whom believed the Count to be the aggrieved party. The excitement of the meeting spilled outwards as messages were hurriedly dispatched to the Kildare Street Club and nearby hotels to find participants who had not yet turned up, as the RDS ‘whips’ began seeking the reinforcements they had not expected to need.

The session inside the Leinster House was to total two hours. The recommendation of the RDS Council, that Plunkett be called upon to resign, was countered with a proposed amendment that the matter be referred back for a further report as to the nature of the charges against the Count, complete with the necessary evidence. Which was the fault-line in the Council’s case – the lack of explanation as to what Plunkett had actually done to merit such blackballing.

All the Chairman of the Council offered was a reminder of how the Count had been arrested and deported to England as a danger to the Realm, in addition to being dismissed from his post as Director of the National Museum. But when the dissenters in the hall clamoured for something more substantial, the Council had nothing to add.

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The Royal Dublin Society (front)

A Storm of Indignation

William Field, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin St Patrick’s, was one of those who spoke up for the absent Count, whose friendship he had known for many years.

George Plunkett, he said, was a gentleman who would never stoop to an unworthy action. If there had been any clear connections between him and the recent insurrection in their city, surely he would have been imprisoned in Frongoch Camp along with the hundreds of others, many of whom had subsequently been released for the lack of evidence in their own cases.

Yes, the three sons of the Count had been involved, with the eldest one executed as a consequence and the other two sentenced to penal servitude. But, Field argued, why single out the father for the deeds of the younger generation?

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William Field

Field finished on what would be a note more prescient than he could have guessed: he would leave the matter to public opinion, having no doubt that those supporting the amendment to save Plunkett from expulsion would be endorsed by the vast majority of Dublin citizens. It was emblematic of the role Count Plunkett would play later in the year – even without being present, he was a mascot for others’ sense of injustice and their need to respond.

Despite the vigorous defence mounted by Field and a handful of other stalwarts, the Council ended up having its way, and Plunkett was expelled by a vote of 236 to 58. At least the Count and his partisans could take solace in the sympathetic coverage by the Freeman, which guaranteed the story a wider audience than the internal complications of the RDS would normally enjoy.[3]

The Tipperary Board of Guardians, for one, was sufficiently moved to adopt a resolution condemning the “extremely bigoted action” of the RDS, predicting that a “storm of indignation” would occur, not only in Ireland, but throughout America and Australia as well.

As it turned out, while expecting those overseas to take much notice was a hope too far, the Guardians were not wrong in regards to the rest of the country.[4]

It was a sign of how drastically the Count’s circumstances would shift, and the mood of Ireland as a whole, that he and the RDS would be reconciled and he reinstated in 1921. “On that occasion,” to quote one historian, “the society displayed a shrewder sense of timing.”[5]

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The Royal Dublin Society (interior)

Unconventional

Meanwhile, plans were underway for an equally dramatic, though perhaps more important, contest in North Roscommon. Its long-time MP, James J. O’Kelly, had died in December after a lengthy illness. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was expected to replace its fallen member with another of its own, and made the first steps in this direction at its convention in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, on the 23rd January. Nominated there was Thomas J. Devine, a well-connected Roscommon native who had already served as a county councillor.

From the IPP’s point of view, Devine was a logical, if not terribly exciting, choice. The only hiccup at the event was the proposal by Father Michael O’Flanagan, the curate for nearby Crossna, that Count Plunkett be selected instead. When this was ruled out of order, the priest left the convention with a dozen other delegates.[6]

One has to wonder the course Irish history might have taken had the IPP agreed to field Plunkett after all, melding their constitutional approach with his connections to the Rising. After all, the Party could already claim its fair share of radicals in the past, such as the land agitator Michael Davitt and the late O’Kelly, a former Fenian.

But the IPP saw no need to try out novelties like running the elderly father of a rebel leader as one of its own. A generous observer might have concluded that the Irish Party was too intent on its hard-fought battle for Home Rule in the corridors of Westminster to be distracted. Critics would have dismissed it as hidebound.

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Cartoon of Count Plunkett

It was, admittedly, a peculiar attempt by Father O’Flanagan. As a Dublin-based art scholar and poet, Plunkett had not the slightest connection with Roscommon. He had dabbled in politics before in a series of brave attempts and doomed endeavours when he stood unsuccessfully for elections, once in Mid-Tyrone (during which he had been punched in the face by an angry mob) and twice in Dublin. He had stood by the side of Charles Stewart Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority stance which had required courage and a willingness to buck orthodoxy that even his friends were surprised by.[7]

But all that had been a long time ago. Yet O’Flanagan had come to the IPP convention with Plunkett in mind, having spoken in support of his man four days earlier at a meeting in Castlerea. What the curate saw in Plunkett, still in exile in England, was not obvious, and it was doubtful that the elderly intellectual would have crossed anyone’s mind if his ejection from the RDS had not been covered in-depth by the newspapers earlier that month. Which did not in itself seem to merit O’Flanagan’s praise of him as the only worthy candidate or the man who would best represent Ireland in the anticipated Peace Conference in Paris when the war in Europe was done.

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Laurence Ginnell

There had been no mention in Castlerea of any political parties or policies. Speaking alongside Father O’Flanagan was Laurence Ginnell, the MP for North Westmeath, but he was an Independent who had long been a renegade from mainstream Irish politics and his support did not indicate much in itself.

It was not until later that Plunkett was identified with Sinn Féin, where he was described as the party’s candidate by the Freeman in its edition for the 25th January. The candidate himself did not indicate any great desire to be associated with Sinn Féin, however. On his official nomination papers, submitted to the Boyle Courthouse on the 26th January on his behalf (he would not return to Ireland until the 31st), he was marked down as President of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy – two worthy, if distinctly non-political, posts.[8]

Having previously defended the Count’s honour against the RDS, the Freeman was obliged to move against him as the struggle for the North Roscommon by-election intensified. He was, after all, standing against the candidate for the IPP, the party for which the newspaper served as a mouthpiece.

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And so, under the headline COUNT PLUNKETT – WHAT IS HIS POLICY? – SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS, the newspaper laid out a series of questions in regard to Count Plunkett:

  • Was he a member of Sinn Féin or a supporter of its abstentionism policy? If elected, would he take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown as an MP?
  • Did he approve of the recent Rising in Dublin?
  • What policy did he propose to adopt in Westminster?
  • Did he intend to reapply for his former position as Director of the National Museum?

“It will be very interesting,” purred the Freeman, “to learn from him on what platform he stands in the contest, for so far no light whatever has been afforded on to the public on this subject.”[9]

‘An Amiable Old Whig’

The Freeman was not alone in wanting to prise open a chink in the Plunkett armour. Jaspar Tully became the third candidate in what was now a three-way contest for the North Roscommon seat. A local businessman and the former MP for South Leitrim, Tully owned, among other things, the Roscommon Herald. Needless to say, the interview questions that the newspaper posed to its proprietor were distinctly tame, if not prearranged with the candidate.

Nonetheless, the points Tully thought necessary to raise or counter told a good deal about how the Count was perceived, albeit by a rival:

Interviewer: I imagined it was claimed last week that Count Plunkett was the candidate of the Sinn Feiners?

Tully: So it was said in surreptitious whispers at the opening of the contest, but we succeeded in getting to the root of the intrigue, and we discovered that the Dublin Sinn Feiners – or Irish Volunteers as they should be more properly called – had nothing to do with putting forward the Count as candidate. It was the work of this Seven Attorneys League from Tyrone, who are placeholders and seekers of posts under the Government.

Interviewer: What impression did the Count make on his audiences?

Tully: Oh, the very worst. The poor old man was unable to be heard a yard away from where he was speaking, and his mumbled platitudes were quite unintelligible to the people.

Interviewer: I thought he was to represent Ireland at the Peace Conference?

Tully: He could not represent Ireland at even a District Council meeting, as the members would so tire of him that they would not listen to him for half an hour. An amiable old Whig is a correct description of the Count. Then the fact that was brought to light that in the days in which he said he had a nodding acquaintance with Parnell and Davitt, he was touting the Tory Government for the post of Resident Magistrate throws a keen light on the class of man he is.

Interviewer: But then his son was shot by orders of Sir John Maxwell’s courtmartial?

Tully: Quite so; we all have the deepest reverence for the sacrifice he made, but I fail to see how the devotion of the son can change a Tory father into something he never was.

To illustrate his point, the candidate quoted a line that had been bandied about in Roscommon during the Land League days: ‘Many a good son reared a bad father.’

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

“As Count Plunkett’s party are trading altogether on this question of the poor boy that died,” Tully continued, referring to the executed Joseph Mary Plunkett, “it should be known widely that so did the father and son differ long before Easter Week that the son did not live with him and had to live in a place for himself.[10]

There was much more of a similar sort throughout the Herald in its lead up to polling day. As an Independent, Tully was also competing against the IPP runner. The fact that Tully focused the bulk of his personal jabs against Plunkett and not Devine made for a backhanded compliment, a salute to the danger that the “poor old man” was perceived to truly be.

Count Cypher

Much of Tully’s attacks could be dismissed as part of the electioneering game. After all, while Joseph did indeed leave the family house at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the rest of Plunketts, including his father, proceeded to move in with him on their property in Larkfield. As for the Count’s supposed inability to articulate, Tully and his pet newspaper had been the only ones to suggest such a thing.

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

(The journalist M. J. MacManus, who heard Count Plunkett speak at the by-election, remembered his “level, cultured tones.” While it was perhaps “the voice of a man who was more used to addressing the members of a learned society than to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings,” Plunkett seemed to manage his share of the public oratory well enough.[11])

Yet both the Freeman and Tully had, in their different styles, touched upon a sensitive question for the Plunkett campaign: that of abstentionism. While Sinn Féin was canvassing for the Count in North Roscommon, so too were others, including the Irish Nation League – the ‘Seven Attorneys League’ mentioned by Tully – an anti-Partition group formed recently in Ulster. The former organisation opposed taking seats in Westminster, while the latter did not. So where, between them, did the Count stand?

As well as Plunkett’s commitments to Sinn Féin, it was also questioned how committed was Sinn Féin to him. According to Laurence Nugent, a worker during the campaign, the party not only refused to support the Count at first but did everything it could to stop him from standing.[12]

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Arthur Grffith

Another election activist, Kevin O’Shiel, told of a more nuanced reaction by Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin’s founder. To any who asked, Griffith’s response was: “If Plunkett goes for Roscommon, all nationalists should support him.” In private, however, Griffith was distinctly cool towards a candidate he knew so little about.[13]

This uncertainty permeated the rest of Griffith’s organisation. Seamus Ua Caomhanaigh was an accountant on the Sinn Féin Executive when a man named Gallagher called in to see him in Dublin. Count Plunkett’s name had just appeared in the papers in connection with the by-election, and Gallagher, a native of Roscommon, wished to ensure that the candidate was “all right from the Sinn Féin point of view” before granting his support. Ua Caomhanaigh replied that, as far as he knew, the Count was indeed alright but first he would have to seek clarification from party headquarters.[14]

Others were quick to grasp the potential of the Count as political horseflesh. The trade unionist William O’Brien was talking with P.T. Keoghane, managing director of Gill Publishers, who he knew from the board of the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Funds. The conversation took place in early January, before Plunkett’s candidacy became common knowledge:

Keoghane: What do you think about fighting North Roscommon?

O’Brien: Well, there are enough obstacles.

Keoghane: What are they?

O’Brien: Well, in the first place, money. I don’t know anybody who has any.

Keoghane: Apart from money, what are the objections?

O’Brien: Well, you want a suitable candidate and you want a programme.

Keoghane: As regards a candidate, what would you say to Count Plunkett?

O’Brien: I think he would be excellent because he would not require any programme. All you need do is introduce him as the father of Joseph Plunkett, who was executed in Easter Week.

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William O’Brien

O’Brien had first met Count Plunkett inside Richmond Barracks following the collapse of the Rising. Both men had played supporting roles in the build-up to the insurrection and were subsequently detained (O’Brien was not released until August 1916). Despite their shared experience, O’Brien did not think of the Count as much of a Nationalist, which did not stop him from approving of the other man as a candidate.

His account of the conversation with Keoghane – perhaps written with the benefit of hindsight – neatly captured the central plank of the Plunkett campaign: who the candidate was being less important than what he represented in a post-1916 Ireland.[15]

This is Going to Cost Money

While others sought to make sense of what was happening, Nugent had proceeded from Dublin to North Roscommon. Besides Nugent’s own lack of experience, the challenges he found were formidable: there was barely any organisation on behalf of the Count, and what funds there were had been donated by friends of Father O’Flanagan to help cover the curate’s expenses.

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Rory O’Connor

Nugent had discussed the matter at length with Rory O’Connor, a close ally of Plunkett’s, but the only advice O’Connor could give was “Do what you think is right.” The few forlorn Plunkettites Nugent met in the local Sinn Féin circles knew all too well that they could not expect any assistance from the rest of their party. They had not even known that Nugent was coming.[16]

Meanwhile, having heard no more about North Roscommon, O’Brien assumed the election was going well. He was, in any case, busy with his work for the Dublin Trades Council, of which he was secretary. At one of its meetings, he was taken aside by the vice-president, Thomas Farren, and introduced to Kitty O’Doherty, wife of the Plunkettite director of elections. She broke the troubling news that the campaign was at the point of collapse. While they had plenty of helping hands from the Roscommon youth, none of them knew what they were supposed to be doing.

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Count Plunkett

Stirred into action, O’Brien and Farren went straight to the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street. When they saw him, he had no collar or tie on, and was in the process of undressing when his visitors came. O’Brien relayed what he had just been told, not that Plunkett seemed very interested.

(O’Brien was unaware, but the Count had only just returned from his English exile, having ignored his probation to stay in Oxford. Tiredness would explain his apparent apathy.)

Plunkett did, at least, ask what should be done. O’Brien suggested sending out to Roscommon a couple of experienced workers from Dublin. The Count seemed to perk up at this:

Plunkett: Do you think these men could be got?

O’Brien: I do not know for sure, but I think so. Do you authorise me to see them?

Plunkett: Yes, certainly.

At this point, Farren nudged O’Brien and made a point of asking if he had any money. The Count took the hint:

Plunkett: Well, who is going to pay for all this?

O’Brien: Count, this is going to cost money.

Plunkett: All I have is £5, you can have it.

O’Brien: Very well, I will take it.

O’Brien thought Plunkett had been anticipating the question, for he took out the aforementioned fiver from his pocket and handed it over. Having only just come back from banishment would also explain the Count’s shortage of ready cash.[17]

Blood from the Lips

For all the doubts and confusion, the nominations of the three candidates on the 26th January had made Plunkett’s standing at least official. Four days later, an appeal for motorcars to assist in the canvassing was issued from the Plunkett residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street. The Count would not return home from England until the following day on the 31st, so the appeal was probably made by O’Connor, who was using the house for his own work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers.

The deep snow in North Roscommon made travelling a challenge but the summoned cars got there all the same, giving the Plunkettites a small fleet of vehicles to match the IPP’s own. The campaign was starting to take shape.

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Boyle, Co. Roscommon, in the blizzard of 1947

Nugent’s wife arrived on the 31st January, a day before the Count was due in North Roscommon. She relayed a message from O’Connor, giving her husband their candidate’s itinerary, as well as instructions to meet the Count at Dromod Station, in Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon.

When Nugent did so, he explained to Plunkett the progress of his campaign, stressing “upon him the certainty of victory. [Plunkett] was rather bewildered as it was not easy to believe these statements unless one saw it for themselves.”

The Count was able to see it for himself when he continued to his last stop at Carrick-on-Shannon station, where he was greeted a huge crowd. These well-wishers formed a procession to accompany him across the bridge into Roscommon, where Father O’Flanagan was waiting.

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

Despite days of speaking in the icy cold, the priest remained unflinching, even when his lips broke and blood flowed freely down his jaw as he addressed the crowd. Count Plunkett spoke next in those level, cultured tones of his and, while he could not compete with a practised demagogue like O’Flanagan, he made, in Nugent’s estimate, “a great impression on his listeners.” By the time the rally was done, the previously befuddled candidate had been infused with a new sense of purpose.[18]

‘Up Roscommon!’

However much of an enigma the Count presented to friend and foe alike, that did not prevent the electorate of North Roscommon from voting him in by a landslide. Stationed at the polling booth in Rooskey, Nugent saw men vying with each other for the honour of being the first to cast a vote for Plunkett. They joked that as Roscommon had seen no action during Easter Week, they would make up for it by firing their ‘shot’ into the ballot box.[19]

Monsignor Michael J. Curran, secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin and a keen observer of Irish politics, recorded in his diary at the time:

Rarely has there been so much excitement over an election result. Count Plunkett started at the eleventh hour with little local backing…Though his supporters had hopes of his success, they never for a moment dreamed of such a resounding victory.

Up to Saturday, the Irish Party believed that they were winning. The news of the success astounded and delighted the ‘man in the street’…Count Plunkett’s success was entirely due to his own banishment, to the memory of his son, Joseph, and the imprisonment of two others.[20]

plunkett“Doubtless, too,” the Monsignor added wryly, “he was helped by his expulsion from the Royal Dublin Society.” Curran, like O’Brien, clearly did not attribute Plunkett’s victory to his own qualities. Perceptively, Curran also made note of how the issue of an Irish republic, as distinct from straightforward independence, was absent during the election.

(This omission – or flexibility, depending on one’s perspective – would be cited by none other than Michael Collins, one of the many young Turks who would cut their teeth working on the Plunkett campaign. A few years later, in the course of the Civil War, Collins was to argue that the example of North Roscommon proved how “absence of key principles was not incompatible with the strength of national feeling.”[21])

Count Plunkett returned to a hero’s welcome in Dublin on the 6th February, three days after his stunning victory. A large crowd had been waiting at Broadstone Station and cheered upon the arrival of his train, with hearty cries of “Up Roscommon!” and “Up the rebels!”

Upon disembarking, the Count was carried out of the station on the shoulders of his supporters to where a crowd – estimated by the Irish Times to be in the thousands – had assembled with much singing, cheering and shouting. Plunkett obliged the onlookers with a short address which was frequently applauded. When that was done, the people accompanied their hero as he was driven in a taxi-cab through the city centre, albeit slowly amongst the press of bodies, to his stop at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.

Plunkett had only just entered the building when the apparently insatiable masses outside called for another speech. In response, the newly-minted MP appeared at a window on the first floor. As a tricolour was waved beside the Count in a suitably dramatic fashion, he indulged his adoring followers.

An Alternative Parliament for a Free People

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

He had come back, he told them, with a message for the city. A blow had been struck for Ireland and he would ask his fellow citizens, many of whom would recall his efforts to be elected for St Stephen’s Ward some twenty years ago – though it was questionable as to how many actually did remember an event two decades past – to ensure that their public representatives would no longer be beholden by the false need to wait upon an alien parliament in Westminster.

When he had travelled down to Roscommon, his chances of success had seemed very slim, indeed. A local man there who owned a newspaper – Plunkett did not deign to name Tully who had so insulted him – had had it said that he, Count Plunkett, was a feeble old man with no work left to give for Ireland. As for the other losing candidate, a very respectable townsman of whom Plunkett would never say anything unkind, he had had behind him the full machinery of the Irish Party. What had been the result?

“You are in,” answered a voice from the crowd below to appreciative cheers.

Roscommon had arisen, the Count continued, and had swept his opponents away. Irishmen should see that in the future their leaders would be the soul of the nation. For that to happen, it was necessary to carry on with the work already begun until the whole of Ireland’s representatives were pledged to serve in Ireland and nowhere else; until, indeed, enough men were elected to form an alternative parliament for a free people. And at this, Plunkett finally withdrew into his house for some well-deserved rest.[22]

The Sinn Féin Candidate?

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‘The Resurrection by Hungary’ by Arthur Griffith (1904)

All this talk of abstaining from Westminster in favour of an Irish counter-parliament was straight out of the Sinn Féin playbook. Griffith had long expounded upon the need for such an assembly, one wholly divorced from any foreign system.

Plunkett was something of a late convert to this ideal. There is certainly nothing in his history to suggest he had been anything other than a conventional parliamentarian. His election director in Roscommon went as far as to interview him beforehand to ensure he was standing on an abstentionism platform but others in the Sinn Féin camp were not so convinced that Plunkett was one of them even while they campaigned on his behalf.[23]

Either way, the Count quickly made his mind known. In North Roscommon, he had announced in his acceptance speech that he would not be taking his seat in the House of Commons, causing “a mild form of consternation” amongst those who had only just voted for him and were not expecting their new MP to be quite so…different to the usual. Any doubts as to what he had said were cleared up when he arrived back to Dublin and spoke to the crowd outside his home.[24]

At no point did Plunkett acknowledge Griffith as the originator of the abstentionism policy. To hear the Count talk, one would have thought he had come up with the stance entirely on his own volition.

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1917

[2] Ibid, 16/01/1917

[3] Ibid, 19/01/1917

[4] Ibid, 22/01/1917

[5] Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 79

[6] FJ, 23/01/1917

[7] Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992), p. 13 ; Tynan, Katharine, Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913), p. 383

[8] FJ, 27/01/1917

[9] Ibid, 01/02/1917

[10] Roscommon Herald, 03/02/2017

[11] Irish Press, 15/03/1948

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), p. 67

[13] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 28-9

[14] Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus (BMH / WS 889), p. 116

[15] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 124, 139-40

[16] Nugent, p. 70

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 141

[18] Nugent, pp. 72-4

[19] Ibid, p. 76

[20] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 199-200

[21] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 40

[22] Irish Times, 07/02/1917

[23] O’Doherty, Kitty (BMH / WS 355), p. 37 ;  O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 120

[24] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1917

 

Bibliography

Books

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992)

O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913)

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Roscommon Herald

Bureau of Military History Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Doherty, Kitty, WS 355

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus, WS 889

Plunkett’s Rising: Count Plunkett and His Family on the Road to Revolution, 1913-7 (Part I)

“It is a true fact that the greatest swordsman in Italy would not fear the second greatest but would fear the worst, for that one would be unpredictable” – The Masque of Red Death (1964)

A Simple Soul

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Count Plunkett

Towards noon on Easter Monday 1916, Monsignor Michael J. Curran received word that Count George Plunkett was waiting outside his office. Guessing that this would be about some new development in the unfolding, but so far still uncertain, situation in Dublin, Monsignor Curran agreed to see him.

Five minutes later, Curran was sitting with the Count, grey-haired and bearded. His caller asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, to whom Curran was secretary. Curran replied that His Grace was ill in bed and not to receive anyone except his doctor.

Which was not entirely true but the Monsignor’s duties included acting as gatekeeper to his master. Things were tense enough as it was, what with the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry, the planned mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers and the abrupt countermanding orders by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.

“Well,” said the Count, according to Curran’s recollections, “it is not necessary that I see him personally but, if you would tell him, it would be alright.”

Plunkett proceeded to inform Curran that there was going to be an uprising in Ireland and that he had already visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome to inform him of such. His Holiness had been asked not to be shocked or alarmed as the rebellion was to be purely in pursuit of the same independence that every country was entitled to. The Count had then asked for the Pontiff’s blessing for the endeavour.

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Archbishop William Walsh

Monsignor Curran was still listening to the story when the telephone rang in his office. Curran answered it to learn that the General Post Office (GPO) had just been seized and occupied by the Irish Volunteers. He returned to inform his visitor that the uprising the latter had warned about was already underway. Curran would later consider it noteworthy that Plunkett had come to him on the day the rebellion began and not before, presumably to leave no window of opportunity for the Archbishop to change anyone’s mind.

Once his visitor had left, Curran hurried to relay what had occurred to his superior. Even after being told the Count’s message, Walsh was more concerned about what MacNeill, rather than Plunkett, might do, looking upon the Count as less of a leader and more “as a simple soul and [he] could not conceive a man like him being at the head of a revolution.”[1]

A Conservative Catholic Gentleman

The Archbishop’s scepticism was understandable, considering how the Count had never shown a radical bone in his body. As far as many were concerned, he was simply:

…a conservative Catholic gentleman with harmless literary and cultural tastes which his job as Director of the National Gallery (bestowed on him by the Liberal Government) gave him ample time and opportunity to indulge in.[2]

This, at least, was the view of the political activist Kevin O’Shiel. It was not an altogether wrong one, though O’Shiel was incorrect about the Gallery. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had been offered its directorship by Dublin Castle in the spring of 1916 on the condition that his family stay out of politics but he defiantly turned it down (being already the director of the National Museum, which was probably what O’Shiel meant).[3]

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William O’Brien

Similar sentiments were expressed by William O’Brien, a trade unionist who had been closely involved in the planning of the Rising. O’Brien knew very little about Plunkett by the time the latter grew in prominence in early 1917, only that he had previously only seen his name “in connection with various projects supported by people of the Unionist type.” Whatever else about the Count, O’Brien certainly did not think of him as much of a Nationalist.[4]

In fact, the Count had had a reasonably active time in politics as a Nationalist, and an honourable one at that. This tended to be overlooked, much like how Walsh, O’Shiel and O’Brien were content to discount the man in general. And yet, for a while, it looked as if the post-Rising upheaval would be regarded as the Plunkett Revolution.

Early Years

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Count Plunkett in ceremonial dress

Born in 1851 as a privileged scion of an illustrious name (the 17th century St. Oliver Plunkett was an ancestor), George Noble Plunkett was sent abroad to a Jesuit school in Nice at the age of six. The reason for this was to protect his health and, as he was the only one of his three siblings to survive to adulthood, this may have been a wise precaution.

Recently ceded to France by Italy, Nice was at a cultural crossroads, and there young George grew up fluent in French, Italian and Niçoise. George, according to a flattering write-up in the Catholic Bulletin, was sufficiently immersed in such a cosmopolitan environment to temporarily forget English but he remained, nonetheless, “in feeling intensely Irish.”[5]

This may be a slight exaggeration as he was not to return to Ireland until 1862, aged eleven. Afterwards, though, he would have ample opportunity to show the intensity of these Irish feelings of his.

Even at an early age, his passion for art, literature and other forms of high culture was evident. He became a regular visitor to various art galleries in Europe, and collected a string of presidencies or vice-presidencies at societies such as the Academy of Christian Science, the Royal Irish Academy and the Society of Catholic Poetry.[6]

George soon developed a system on how best to explore a gallery: (1) a visit should never last more than two hours, for past that and mental fatigue sets in, (2) always focus on the best pieces even to the exclusion of the rest (advice he was happy to pass on to anyone interested).[7]

George made his mark on the literary scene when he published a collection of his poetry, God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems in 1877. Many of the poem titles – such as ‘Ave Maria’, ‘The Sleep of the Infant Jesus’ and ‘An Orphan’s Prayer to the Blessed Virgin’ – display a distinctly Catholic sensibility, with the occasional foray into Irish nationalism, such as in ‘To Ireland’, where he laments the subject’s history:

Woe! Woe! That we cannot blot

The records of countless crimes!

For the blood and tears you shed

Leave their strains to the latest times.

But worst of the heartless foes

That his hand hath deep imbed

In the warm hearts-blood of our Nationhood,

Is that monster, Ingratitude.[8]

Another, ‘Erinn’, both celebrates his homeland while hinting at the poet’s status as a world traveller:

Fair is God’s world!

I have wondered it tho’:

Fancy’s unfurled

His best scenes to my view;

When seems the fairest,

Of all the bright earth –

The dearest, the rarest?

The land of my birth!

Golden expanse

Poetized by the Rhine,

Gay land of France,

Repose of wit and of wine,

But one can claim –

Though it hath not the smile

Of Italy – the name

Of the Emerald Isle![9]

Upon reviewing some later poems of Plunkett’s in 1921, the novelist Katherine Tynan summed up the main themes as “two strains – God and Ireland, sometimes single, oftener intermingled.” As Plunkett was then prominently involved in Irish politics, Tyan could not resist making the connection: “In a sense, such poetry…bears witness for Sinn Fein. That the singer of these noble numbers should be of the movement is eloquent.”[10]

One could debate the quality of the poems and perhaps compare them unfavourably to that of his eldest son’s, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose works, such as ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’ and ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight’, are still recited today. George Plunkett’s efforts, on the other hand, have almost entirely receded from public consciousness. As a literary man, his legacy can perhaps be felt through that of Joseph’s, who followed in his father’s footsteps in his ambition to be a poet.

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

Taste and Scholarship

George did not hoard his talents to himself. From 1883 to 1884, he was editor of the Hibernia, a literary journal with a good deal of, in Tynan’s opinion, “taste and scholarship.” As a budding writer herself, Tynan had contributed a couple of her poems. That the Hibernia, alas, did not last long, Tynan attributed to it being “too bookish” for the philistines of Dublin (she remained friends with Plunkett, with him donating a few books for her shelves, and later sent a cheque for copies of her first publication).[11]

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

He had by then married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Cranny (who went by her middle name), in 1884. A fruitful union, the couple went on to produce seven children – four girls and three boys. Their two families had worked closely for years, becoming rich in property together. As a sign of how little money was a concern, George and Josephine were set up a year after their wedding in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the residence having been bought, furnished and decorated by the former’s father.[12]

George could be equally generous with others. The nuns of the Little Company of Mary had been asked by Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to set up a centre in Rome. George happened to be there at the time and in a position to assist with the purchasing and refurbishment of the new convent.

He was rewarded a year later with the title of Papal Count. It was, apparently, something of a “source of great embarrassment and annoyance to him… as an ardent Nationalist he did not like being mistaken for some kind of English or Continental aristocrat” (Josephine, on the other hand, was delighted to be addressed as Countess by friends and servants alike). It was not until he was requested by the Vatican to use the title, and from then on, he was Count Plunkett to the world.[13]

That is, at least, according to his daughter Geraldine, who left a memoir that is revealing in its depiction of the Plunkett home life but also problematic due to her naked prejudices. She adored her father and loathed her mother, and it is thus not surprising that her reminisces frequently leaned in favour of one parent at the expense of the other.

Plunkett Family, 1894
The Plunkett family

For one, Geraldine overlooked how her father was capable of stubborn streaks throughout his life, and it is unlikely that even the Holy Father could have forced him into bearing a title he did not want (he was not above using it for political point-scoring, though – when a rival Nationalist sneered at the title, Plunkett retorted that since it had been awarded by the Pope, any slight on the title was thus a slur against the Vicar of Christ[14]).

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Countess Plunkett

Secondly, Geraldine’s depiction of her mother as an insufferable, tight-fisted harridan does not necessarily chime with that of others’. The future Fianna Fáil minister, Todd Andrews, was a regular visitor to the family house after the Civil War, and found the Countess to be “a kind and humorous woman who could laugh at her own oddities.”[15]

But then, Andrews did not have to live with her. George came out of his study one time to find his wife beating their daughter Moya mercilessly with her fists in the hallway, the crime of the wretched girl being to ask her miserly mother to buy her sister Fiona a coat for the winter.

As told by Geraldine, ‘Pa’ Plunkett somehow interpreted the scene as Moya attacking the Countess instead of vice versa, and began thrashing Moya with his walking-stick. Joseph intervened to snatch the stick away and break it over his knee:

Ma took this as a personal insult and redoubled her screaming. Joe comforted Moya while Pa, realising his mistake, stood helplessly patting her on the head to show he was sorry. By the time I came in, Pa had retreated to the study, Ma to the dining-room, and Joe was still trying to comfort poor Moya.[16]

At least Fiona ended up with a new winter-coat after all that.

“You must remember that Mammy is only a little girl,” Plunkett told Geraldine by way of explanation after the latest fight with her mother.[17] An indulgent parent, more a friend than an authority figure to his children, Count Plunkett preferred to avoid household drama – Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett would have understood.

One Missing Plank

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T.D. Sullivan

One source of drama which Count Plunkett did display an interest in was politics; unfortunately, those already in politics did not reciprocate with an interest in him. He wrote to T.D. Sullivan, the Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP), in 1885, asking to be proposed for the Irish National League of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose words Plunkett quoted about how the national platform lacked but “one plank” – with himself presumably being that missing plank.

If Plunkett had been hoping to ingratiate himself with Parnell’s colleagues, then he was in for a rude awakening. Sullivan’s reply could not have been more condescending. Plunkett, he wrote back, must have taken the line about the plank too literally. “It seems to me,” Sullivan continued, “that if that be so, your joining the League might possibly some day bring disappointment to you, and I would not like to be party thereto.”

The main barrier to Plunkett was his hostility towards the Land League, by then supressed and to which the National League was intended to replace, focusing this time on the issue of Home Rule rather than of land distribution like before. Plunkett’s attitude towards the Land League still rankled with Sullivan: “I can well remember how bitterly opposed you were.”

Academic debates, Sullivan warned, were not enough to win Home Rule – which sums up what he thought of the other man’s style. Also, Home Rule would not be the sole focus of the new League. With the issues of land unresolved and requiring their full attention for the moment, Sullivan took “the liberty of suggesting that you should very well consider your course before ‘casting your lot,’ as the saying is, with the leaders of the National League.”[18]

Although stonewalled from politics, Plunkett could not avoid being affected by the ‘Divorce Crisis’ in 1890, which saw Parnell exposed as an adulterer and a political liability. Most of his allies deserted him, including the caustic T.D. Sullivan; one who did not was George Plunkett.

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Katharine Tynan

That the Count would stand by the stricken statesman surprised even the former’s friend, Tynan, who saw him as “one of those trusted Catholic laymen who represented the best and most orthodox Catholic feeling of Dublin” – in other words, a very conventional man. Yet he was prepared to go against the tide when he felt it necessary, a fact that impressed Tynan. Together, they endured the “obloquy, the unjust condemnation, the wrongs”, as she put it, from the Anti-Parnellites (while such words may strike the modern reader as excessively dramatic, events in Mid-Tyrone would show them to be, if anything, understated).[19]

Such unjust obloquy did much to toughen up the Count. In a letter to John Redmond in 1895, Plunkett advised his fellow Parnellite on the best ways to deal with power-brokering clerics such as Dr William Walsh. Redmond was feuding with the Archbishop over stories unflattering to the Church that had appeared in newspapers controlled by the politician. Due to past experience teaching him to “neither fear nor despise the clergy,” Plunkett advised Redmond to moderate such stories, which would hopefully persuade the Archbishop to side with them against their Anti-Parnell rivals.[20]

Such talk sat oddly with his public proofs of piety – in addition to the papal counthood, he amassed an impressive set of papal medals: the Cross of Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, the Grand Cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Cross of the Order of the Advocates of St Peter, and two medals of the Cross of St John of Lateran for him and his wife.[21]

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Papal medals awarded to Count Plunkett

But then, as indicated by his earlier defence of Parnell in the teeth of clerical condemnation – and how his visit to Rome on the eve of the Easter Rising would show – Count Plunkett was quite capable of following his own mind, even where Holy Mother Church was concerned.

Political Pursuits

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Charles Stewart Parnell

Plunkett stayed loyal to Parnell to the end, the latter dropping in to see him before leaving for England in 1891. Unfortunately, the Count was out of the house at the time. After waiting for a long while, Parnell left, saying only as he departed: “Perhaps it is just as well.” He died shortly afterwards. Plunkett, who was already upset at having missed Parnell, mourned him deeply.[22]

From then on, the Count took a more active role in politics, albeit with mixed results. In the 1892 general election, he stood as the Parnellite candidate for Mid-Tyrone, the sundered Irish National League no longer able to be quite so fussy in who it took.

That the Parnellite faction could put forward a candidate at all was a surprise. When the news was announced on posters around the town of Omagh, many Anti-Parnellites were inclined to regard it as a joke. It was not until a delegation of Parnellites left Omagh on the evening of the 18th June to greet their incoming candidate that the matter was confirmed.

The Count arrived in town, with a torchlight procession and the sounds of band music, through streets filled with knots of curious onlookers. Plunkett – “who spoke under difficulties,” according to a local newspaper – explained to the crowd his Party’s stance, which was that of the late Parnell, “the policy which his followers over his grave at Glasnevin had pledged themselves to carry out.” Though an outsider, Plunkett busied himself with paying personal visits around the constituency.[23]

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Omagh, Co. Tyrone

The election was to be a three-way contest. According to Geraldine, her father withdrew in order to support his Anti-Parnellite counterpart, Matthew Joseph Kenny, lest he split the Nationalist vote and allow in a Unionist. However, that is untrue, as the parliamentary records show that he continued to stand and received 123 votes, compared to Kenny’s 3,667 and the Unionist candidate’s 2,590. The best that could be said of such a result is that at least Plunkett’s share was too small to have threatened the other Nationalist.[24]

There was nothing that could be said against Plunkett’s courage, however. While making the electioneering rounds by wagon, his party was attacked upon stopping at the Catholic churchyard of Carrickmore by its Anti-Parnellite congregation when their parish priest recognised the rival candidate (it is unclear if the padre had incited the crowd or merely made his hostility known to them). Plunkett was punched in the mouth and, bleeding heavily, hurried back with his companions to their wagon, on which they narrowly escaped amidst a hail of stones.

Little wonder, then, that after the election results were read out on the 8th July, Plunkett praised his fellow loser, the Unionist candidate, as having behaved honourably, while pointedly omitting Kenny and the conduct of his followers.[25]

At least his time there was not to be a complete waste. Three years later, the poet Alice Milligan asked him for the names of Tyrone Nationalists to help gather interest for her politically-themed publications. Literature, art and culture were always there as consolations for Count Plunkett when politics failed.[26]

St Stephen’s Ward

Plunkett picked himself up from this loss to stand again for Parliament in 1895, this time for the St Stephen’s Green Ward, Dublin, which was at least a more plausible seat than faraway Tyrone. He was also better prepared this time, taking care to announce and explain his candidacy in an open letter to the newspapers:

Fellow-Citizens,

Having been selected by a National Convention to contest your division, I gladly accept the task imposed on me.

I am in complete accord with the Independent [Parnellite] Party. I have always held the Policy of Independence of English Parties to be Ireland’s only hope in the Imperial Parliament.

As I do not seek a seat in Parliament as a stepping-stone to office, I will not subordinate the interests of Ireland to any other interest whatsoever.

As a Catholic, I am in favour of Denominational Education.

I am in favour of Peasant Proprietary for Ireland.

I sympathise warmly with the movement for the release of political prisoners,

I will do all in my power for the welfare of the Irish working man, and for the promotion and protection of Irish industries.

It is now our duty to wrest the St Stephen’s Green Division from the Unionist, and to show by our energy and enthusiasm that Ireland is solid for Home Rule.

To secure the result, upon which such vital interests may depend, EVERY HOME RULE VOTE MUST BE POLLED.

Trusting in your tried fidelity to the Old Cause,

I remain, Fellow-Citizens,

Your faithful servant,

GEORGE NOBLE COUNT PLUNKETT[27]

His support for peasant landownership may have come as a surprise to those who had known his aversion towards the Land League. Everything else was standard Nationalist aspiration, particularly the appeal to Home Rule, even if that was very much dead in the water for the while.

This time Count Plunkett was the sole Nationalist candidate, standing against a Unionist, William Kenny (who, by a strange coincidence, shared the same surname as Plunkett’s archenemy in Mid-Tyrone three years ago, although there was no relation). Still, the election was a tense one, with the Irish Times noting that on polling day:

The aspect of Dublin yesterday was unusual. The air was fully charged with political electricity, and for years past the city has not seen busier or more anxious hours than those of the intervals during which the polling booth remained open.[28]

Plunkett and Kenny were seen putting in their fair shares of electioneering work as they drove around to the various polling stations and encouraged their respective adherents throughout the day. Despite the Count’s efforts, Kenny was to be announced as the victor, beating his Nationalist foe by 3,661 votes to 3,205.[29]

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Portrait of William Kenny as a judge

Further Attempts

Opportunity knocked again for Plunkett the aspiring politician when, three years later, Kenny was appointed a judge, prompting a by-election for St Stephen’s Ward. Once more, Plunkett was defeated by a Unionist candidate, though the results were closer this time – 3,525 to 3,387.[30]

The cause for this second defeat was attributed by Nationalist critics to a system whereby “lodgers” – the sons of local Unionists – who normally lived in England could stay in their families’ homes in Dublin for a minimum of twelve months to count as lodgers and thus vote in the elections.

Polling day had been notably skittish. Even before the results were known, Plunkettite canvassers were handing out cards objecting to the unfair odds against them. “Notice to Lodger voters take notice,” they read, “That the vote of every person who is registered as a lodger, and who has not signed his claim himself, is objected to, and if necessary, will be objected to on a petition.”

Large placards to the same effect were put up around the constituency. The rebellious mood spread to the polling booths. In Pembroke, a polling clerk made himself conspicuous by pestering ‘lodger’ voters with questions like “What rent do you pay?” Another clerk of Nationalist sympathies attempted to stop a voter on the grounds that he had already left the house for which his name was on the register. The voter, however, insisted on his rights and his contribution to the ballot was duly noted.

The military authorities had caught wind of the tension. To avoid the risk of further unrest, they confined their troops stationed nearby to their barracks for the duration of the poll. Those soldiers entitled to vote were allowed passes to leave on condition that they return at once when done.[31]

Stymied yet again, Plunkett at least had found a cause to work on, and he campaigned for two years to change these rigged electoral procedures. His efforts bore fruit by 1900 when a Nationalist candidate finally took St Stephen’s Ward at 3,429 votes to the Unionist’s 2,873.[32]

The Count had not stood that time. Geraldine attributed his withdrawal from politics to the mutual dislike between him and John Redmond, leader of the reunited Irish Party, not to mention the opposition of his hard-headed wife (who held the purse-strings) to any more expensive elections.[33]

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John Redmond

Corroborating this explanation are letters by John Redmond, one from 1896 in which he regretfully – but nonetheless quite firmly – declined to pay for the expenses incurred by Plunkett as part of the unsuccessful election for St Stephen’s Ward the previous year. The Count made one last push for reimbursement in 1902, but received the same rebuff from Redmond, who pleaded money shortages – “It is not a fact I am sorry to say that the National Organisations are well provided with funds” – and ended with how he saw “great difficulty in dealing with the matter satisfactorily to you.”[34]

For all his hard work and money spent, Plunkett had not progressed in the Irish Party from anything higher than a hanger-on. The professional politicians who the Count had aspired to join had had a use for him before, and now, with the Party reunited, they did not.

Cultural Pursuits

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Sandro Botticelli, self-portrait

Frustrated, Plunkett threw himself into his studies, in particular the writing of a scholarly work on Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter about whom he felt strongly enough to name one of his dogs after. The Renaissance in general was a topic close to his heart; his favourite reading material being, besides the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Todd Andrews was invited to inspect the Count’s considerable library, he was too distracted by the “splendid collection” of books on Renaissance art to investigate the rest of the shelves.[35]

Published in 1900, Sandro Botticelli was a success, and earned its author a string of honorary memberships at the Academy of St Luke in Rome, the Academy of the Fine Arts in Florence, and the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi al Pantheon.[36]

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Plunkett went from strength to strength in 1907 when he was made Director of the National Museum. He would regard it as much a calling as a job, and as work in service to the nation. “To my mind a museum is more than a system,” he told a conference of the Museums’ Association in 1912. “It is a part of the national life, it is an expression of the national life and of the higher qualities of the people to whom it belongs.”

One cause for development was that, while the Museum had many ancient objects from Ireland – “We are fortunate in having the greatest collection of Celtic antiquities in Europe,” as he put it – the exhibitions were lacking in later items: “There is the long period during the occupation of Ireland by the English, which is hardly represented at all. We have works of extraordinary beauty extending down as far as the thirteenth century, but then occurs this gap which we have hitherto been unable to fill.” And it was important that this gap in question be filled, “so that our people may be in a position to realise vividly the elements of their own past.”[37]

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National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

Equipped with this vision and passion, Plunkett thrived, as did the Museum, such as when he succeeded in dramatically increasing attendance levels from a hundred students in one year to three thousand in another. A theatre room was built, where the Director took the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, and used the venue to deliver lectures of his own.

“To have had lessons on art history from a master such as Count Plunkett does not fall to the lot of many,” was how an appreciative Andrews described his time with him.[38]

He was to remain in that happy role for nine years until the Easter Week of 1916 threw the country into turmoil and uprooted his quiet, orderly life. It was an upset he had had some small hand in.

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Count Plunkett at study

A Family Affair

By the time of the Rising, the Plunkett family had already been steeped in the sort of politics that Dublin Castle had tried to tempt the Count out of with its National Gallery offer. The clan patriarch was preoccupied with the demands of running his museum (there was no doubt that it was ‘his’), and so it was the new generation who led the charge.

In November 1913, Joseph, saw a notice in certain newspapers, calling a meeting to organise an Irish Volunteer force in order to ensure and, if necessary, fight for the passing of the Home Rule Bill The notice was signed by Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League.

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Joseph was intrigued but, stricken with tuberculosis as he was, not think much of his chances of being accepted, plaintively asking his sister Geraldine: “Do you think I could be of any use? I’m afraid I won’t be able to do very much.”

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

Geraldine encouraged him to try anyway. After an encouraging talk with MacNeill, Joseph attended the meeting, held on the 25th in a skating rink at the back of the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. Much to his surprise, Joseph found himself on the platform and nominated to the Provisional Committee of the newly-founded Irish Volunteers, under the chairmanship of MacNeill and in the company of other soon-to-be celebrated men such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.

Joseph returned home excited and not a little confused by his sudden elevation, which Geraldine attributed to his friendships with insiders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), some of whom were also on the committee. In time, he would be inducted into that oath-bound secret society and, later, its Military Council (which also included Pearse and MacDonagh).

This was despite not being, as his brother Jack admitted, the most practical of people (few in the family were, their mother notwithstanding), his talents instead lying with the suggestion of ideas that others could then implement.[39]

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Thomas MacDonagh

Personal connections also played a role. Joseph had met MacDonagh when the latter was hired in 1909 to tutor him for exams. His resultant low marks did not stop the two from developing a friendship. Both shared literary and poetic tastes, and the pair worked together on the Irish Review magazine, of which MacDonagh was editor. MacDonagh might also have been the one to introduce Joseph to fellow poet Pearse, possibly in 1910 or 1911, making the Military Council sometimes seem like the continuation of the same social circle.[40]

The other Plunkett siblings were not to be left out. Though still a schoolboy, Jack also joined the Volunteers, later working full-time on Joseph’s staff. His main duties were the rigging of wireless radios, at which he admitted to being largely unsuccessful (Jack was still the most technically-minded Plunkett, and in later years would indulge in his hobby of tinkering with motor-car engines).[41]

For her part, Geraldine made to join Cumann na mBan, but was dissuaded by Joseph. Unwilling to risk letters or telephones, her older brother wanted her to relay messengers on his behalf to his co-conspirators, a role which would be easier to perform without attracting the notice of Dublin Castle detectives if she was unknown to them.[42]

Secrecy became the watchword of the day. Jack only learnt years later that he and the third Plunkett brother, George Oliver, had worked on the same project – he could not remember which – despite the two of them living under the same roof. It was not until Easter Week, when the brothers were holed up together in the GPO, that Joseph felt comfortable enough to talk to Jack about certain, previously hush-hush matters.[43]

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Jack Plunkett

Larkfield

The family property at Larkfield in Kimmage, south of Dublin, was utilised into a base for the younger Plunketts as they became more involved in radical politics. Consisting of twelve acres of land, with yards, paddocks, an old farm and a mill, complete with a “beautiful middle-sized house…and a garden full of roses,” Larkfield had originally been purchased by the Countess for the family (one of the few times Geraldine was prepared to concede when her mother had not been a complete ogress).

Larkfield

Given the poor state of Joseph’s health, it was easier for his IRB partners to visit him in Larkfield as he had taken to living there along with the rest of the family. Their paterfamilias was the last to join them, and 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street was left to store his books, receive mail but otherwise gather dust. The Count soon settled into a pleasant routine of heading off to the Museum for a day’s work before walking back to Kimmage from the tram at Harold’s Cross.[44]

He was presumably unconcerned about the growing number of young men on the Larkfield property. Unsettled by the threat of conscription, these newcomers had departed from Britain, intending to fight at home for their country rather than in France for another.

“Suddenly one morning about forty young men descended on us,” was how Geraldine remembered the beginning of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, as they became known by. The numbers of this impromptu company swelled to approximately ninety members, fresh off the boat from cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.

They were kept busy with military drills in between the manufacture of munitions, namely shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades. One member proudly recounted how, on a peak night, they could produce up to five thousand lead pellets and twenty grenades, sometimes working twenty-four hour shifts.[45]

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Members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’

Joseph’s work on the Military Council intensified. After Christmas 1915, he told Geraldine that he was off to Germany, which she assumed was for the purpose of procuring weapons. He entrusted his sister with the cipher he would use in any letters sent, to be passed on to her via a cousin and then forwarded to Pearse or another of the conspirators.

He did not trust his mother as much, telling her only that he was leaving for the Continent. In an insight into the complicated dynamics of the household, Joseph changed his mind and informed the Countess that he was going on Volunteer business that might take him to Germany. When Geraldine asked him why “on God’s earth he had done such a thing,” he replied that their mother, adept at prying as she was, would have found out anyway.[46]

Count Plunkett’s involvement, if any, goes unstated in Geraldine’s memoir until early April 1916, when the reader learns of him being sworn into the IRB by Joseph. Geraldine did not record her father’s thoughts on the matter, only that “he was very pleased that his son was now his superior officer.”[47]

But Pa Plunkett was not to be just another ordinary member, for his son had a very particular mission in mind for his new subordinate.

His Holiness

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W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

On Easter Sunday, W.J. Brennan-Whitmore was preparing for the start of the uprising in Dublin when he was informed by his commanding officer, Thomas MacDonagh, that Count Plunkett had just returned from Rome, bringing with him the blessing of the Pope for their venture. While pleased to hear such news, Brennan-Whitmore could not help but wonder, just a little, for “it seemed unusual,” and he was still not wholly convinced by the time he penned his memoirs years later.[48]

Brennan-Whitmore was not the only one uncertain, and it was to answer such doubts that Count Plunkett told his side of the story in a brief article for the Irish Press newspaper in 1933:

I have heard that it is denied that I went to Rome immediately before the Rising of 1916 to communicate with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. I had no desire to publish information that at the time was not intended for the Press; but now I must disclose certain facts in the interest of truth.

Why he had waited so long before revealing all was left unstated. A need for secrecy seems unlikely, given the length of time that had passed, not to mention how participation in the Rising rapidly became a badge of honour (and political asset) in the months that followed. That the Count had managed for seventeen years to refrain from publicising his role in the most celebrated rebellion in national history – despite the advantages it would have brought to his subsequent career as a Republican firebrand – was an impressive act of restraint in itself.

About three weeks before the Rising, I was, through my son Joseph, commissioned by the Executive of the Irish Volunteers (the Provisional Government) to act as their Envoy on the Continent.[49]

According to Geraldine (whose account fills in some of the gaps in her father’s), Joseph had heard news of the visit of the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, to the Vatican. Concerned that His Holiness might be pressured or persuaded to instruct his Irish bishops to condemn any rebellion, Joseph decided that his father would make the best emissary to plead their case. As a papal count, he was, after all, entitled to such an audience.[50]

One task given to me I needed not particular here. When it was carried out, I went onto Rome, according to my instructions.

The task in question was to send a communication to Germany where Sir Roger Casement was attempting to solicit aid for the rebels. The Count was to memorise the message (papers being too vulnerable to carry around) before sending it from neutral Switzerland en route to Italy. Again, it is unclear as to why he felt the need to omit this detail – perhaps he was simply concerned about the length of the article.[51]

Having arrived at his destination, the Count was granted his audience with Pope Benedict:

For nigh on two hours we discussed freely the question of the coming struggle for Irish independence. The Pope was much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed and the reason for that decision. Finally, I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred His Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland’s liberty.

The wording makes it sound as if Plunkett was handing the country over on a silver platter. Most likely, he was reassuring the Pope that the insurgents had no distastefully left-leaning, anti-clerical or – God forbid – socialist tendencies.

(Such consideration for papal sensitivity was not untypical. Four years later, Sean T. O’Kelly stressed to the same pontiff that “as practising Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.”[52])

The article also gives the impression that the Pope took all of this in with serene acceptance. Plunkett gave a more dramatic version to Geraldine, in which the Vicar of Christ bestowed his blessing with tears of sympathy pouring down his face.[53]

Monsignor Curran’s record of what the Count had told him on Easter Monday was less striking but perhaps more likely. Here, Benedict XV comes across as noticeably circumspect upon being asked to approve of a venture that had just been sprung on him:

The Pope showed great perturbation and asked was there no peaceful way out of the difficulty…Count Plunkett answered every question, making it plain that it was the will of the leaders of the movement to act entirely with the good-will or approval – I forget which now – of the Pope and to give an assurance that they wished to act as Catholics. It was for that reason they came to inform his Holiness. All the Pope could do was express his profound anxiety.[54]

One consistent detail in the different versions is how Plunkett informed the Pope that the date of the uprising was fixed, leaving the latter with no chance at dissuasion. It was the same Machiavellian deference he would apply when dropping in to see Archbishop Walsh. The Count may have been a man of a lofty intellect and cultured tastes, but he was also capable of low cunning when it was called for.

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Pope Benedict XV

The Rising

Count Plunkett finished his article with his return to Ireland, just in time for the big event:

Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent in my report on the results of my mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916.

According to Geraldine, her father arrived back in Ireland on Holy Thursday and spent the remaining four days before the Rising travelling around the country to meet with various bishops to request that they also refrain from condemnation. Geraldine thought he visited five bishops altogether, but Monsignor Curran was not aware of any of this when he saw the Count on Easter Monday, and it is hard to believe that these other bishops would not have passed word to the Archbishop of Dublin beforehand.

Count Plunkett omitted his talk with Curran in his 1933 article and also how afterwards, according to Geraldine, he had made his way to the GPO, with the Rising unfolding all around, to ask Joseph to take him on as another Volunteer. Recognising that a 65-year old man did not make for an credible soldier, Joseph told his father that they had enough men inside already and instead sent him home.[55]

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The General Post Office (GPO), Dublin

In the meantime, the members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ had been preparing themselves. Pearse had addressed them a week before, urging them to be ready. His enthusiasm was infectious and the men looked forward to Easter Sunday when they would finally see action.

When Sunday came, the ‘Garrison’ was assembled and armed when a car pulled up at Larkfield with the news that the operation was cancelled.

The following day saw the men in a sullen mood. Before, they had been early risers to a man but now they did nothing but lounge about. The only flicker of interest was in the talk of heading into town to start their own insurrection, orders and countermands be damned.

It was sometime before noon when a whistle blew, calling the ‘Garrison’ into line. George Oliver Plunkett, the 22-year old younger brother of Joseph, had been placed in charge – no one seemed perturbed by such nepotism – and was now wearing, according to one of his subordinates, “a broad, proud, confident smile.”[56]

George read out a dispatch, saying they were to parade at Liberty Hall. To the men, this could mean only one thing: they would have their Rising after all. Enthusiasm overrode discipline as they broke ranks and ran to gather their weapons.

Now prepared, the Volunteers marched to where they boarded a tram (their fares paid for by a considerate George) and were taken to the city centre, where they disembarked at O’Connell Street. Making their way to Liberty Hall, they saw Joseph waiting for them outside. He was, as one of them recalled, “beautifully dressed, having high tan boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.”[57]

Family Matters

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Grace Gifford

It had been a turbulent few days for Joseph as he tried balancing the imminent rebellion with his love life. His fiancée, Grace Gifford, remembered him in high spirits the previous week. Things took a darker turn on the Saturday when Michael Collins visited her at home to deliver, on Joseph’s behalf, a revolver and money, one to fight with and the other to bribe a British soldier if needs be. Grace did not know of which to be more frightened.

When she saw her betrothed the next day, he was “wretched looking”, having skipped the nursing home he was due to check into. Afterwards, Grace could not recall what they had talked about, not even if it was about their wedding, for they were due at the altar the next day, alongside his sister Geraldine and her nuptials in the same church.

Grace and he had been discussing marriage dates for some time. Joseph had suggested Lent which Grace, as a newly converted Catholic, was against. She suggested Easter instead, but Joseph at first resisted on the grounds that “we may be having a revolution then.”[58]

Though Grace and Joseph would not have their wedding until they were in a prison cell, hours before the latter was due to be executed, Geraldine plunged ahead with her own on Easter Sunday. The happy couple cycled to the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street for the night.

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The following morning, Geraldine watched from the hotel window with her new husband as uniformed Volunteers advanced up the street and halted in front of the GPO. She recognised her brothers, Joseph and George, the older accompanied by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, as they and their men set to work constructing barricades.

One Volunteer tried to drive an abandoned tram into another but failed to pick up the necessary speed. Instead, Joseph threw a Larkfield-made bomb into the vehicle and shot it with his pistol from about thirty yards away – “a beautiful shot,” as Geraldine remembered. The shot detonated the bomb, mangling the tram and rendering it a perfect obstacle.

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Wrecked tram at Bridgefoot Street, Dublin, 1916

This was the last time Geraldine would see her brother. When she tried talking her way into the GPO, she was told on behalf of Joseph to go home as the building was already full up. It was the same line Joseph gave his father. He may have been willing to risk his own life but he drew a line at certain family members.[59]

Prison

Count Plunkett was arrested on the 1st May, two days after the collapse of the Rising. His experiences were described in two short documents: a pencil manuscript in the Count’s hand in the first person, and a typescript in the third, possibly intended for publication.

The Count was in his Upper Fitzwilliam Street residence when a body of soldiers demanded admittance. Despite their lack of a warrant, Plunkett decided that compliance was the wisest course. The men searched the house, breaking open desks and spilling their contents onto the floor, while taking the opportunity to pocket a number of items, including the Count’s prized collection of papal medals.

Also seized were two historical dress-swords which the Count had labelled for loan to the Museum. Plunkett was unaware of these thefts at the time as the only item officially taken was a third ceremonial sword that came with his uniform as Director. The soldiers also tried to get him to admit to having guns in the house but he insisted there was none.

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Count Plunkett’s wrecked study following the search by soldiers

Their search complete, the soldiers arrested Plunkett and took him in an iron-sided van to Dublin Castle. There, he was brought to a small, dirty cell, occupied by twenty others, where they spent the night. His roommates were a mixed bunch, some being “men of education” like himself, others having been arrested for looting. A few were injured, indicating that they had played a part in the recent fighting.

“I cannot” – at this point, the manuscript broke off. The typescript continued the unhappy narration. After a breakfast of canned ‘bully beef’, stale biscuits and tea served in cans, the prisoners were ordered out and marched through the streets to Richmond Barracks, “being subject to insult by the military and the disreputable camp-followers on the way.”

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Prisoners being marched by British soldiers after the Rising

Upon reaching the Barracks, they were again crammed, twenty-seven of them, into a space intended for eleven. As before, their confinements were filthy despite the presence of wounded men who received no special consideration (one fellow prisoner who shared the cell with Plunkett corroborated the crowded squalor of their confinement, and how the prisoners discovered that a pair of boots could make a much-welcomed pillow[60]).

For nearly a week, the prisoners were left to sleep on bare floorboards. Sometimes it was so cold that even the weariest were kept awake through the night. Mealtimes were a drudge of hard biscuits, ‘bully beef’ and black tea, assuaged only when the guards were bribed for food from outside. The Count – or least the document – made the claim that he broke three teeth on a biscuit, but as this is mentioned nowhere else, it was probably untrue.

Things improved somewhat when their treatment was publicised in the newspapers, and the medical staff warned of a fever outbreak should conditions remain as they were. The prisoners were first given rugs to lie on. Sanitary arrangements improved. Food became at least tolerable.

After a fortnight, the Count was finally granted a bed; a hard one, but better than the floorboards. He began receiving visits from his family except his wife, who had been arrested in turn two days after him, a fact he had been previously unaware of.

Twice he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and brought out to the grounds where a court-martial had been convened, apparently for a session, but each time he was sent back, still untried. At least such outings allowed him to see Joseph, George and Jack, also waiting as prisoners. A soldier later said within earshot that all three had been shot. Another clarified a few days later that George and Jack had ‘only’ been sentenced to ten years. All their father could glimpse of the pair was from a window before they were dispatched to Portland Prison in England.[61]

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Prisoners under guard in Richmond Barracks

He had already witnessed his eldest son on the day of Joseph’s court-martial, standing in the square of Richmond Barracks, from a first storey window. The two looked at each other for a long while before Joseph was moved on, soon to be before a firing-squad. The Count was weeping as he told this to Geraldine: “Even after the executions, it was not thought right to weep openly, but Pa did, and it was one of the reasons I loved him.”[62]

Visitors’ Hours

For all the hardship, Count Plunkett did his best to stay in good humour. A friendly priest, Father Eugene Nevin, visited him in Kilmainham, finding the “dear old man in a small white-washed room, the only furniture of any kind being what looked like a large soap box on which he sat reading the last evening’s Mail.”

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Bishop Edward O’Dwyer

Not only could Plunkett greet his visitor with a smile, but he was soon laughing out loud, finding much merriment in the published correspondence between the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and General Maxwell. Bishop O’Dwyer had replied to Maxwell’s requests for cooperation with a notably acerbic pen, and Plunkett could at least vicariously enjoy the Bishop’s defiance of the man who had overseen Joseph’s execution two weeks before.[63]

Another source of humour, albeit of a black kind, was a piece of pantomime by him and his fellow prisoners. Plunkett played the role of judge in a mock-trial of Éamon de Valera, awaiting his own court-martial in Kilmainham, who was ‘charged’ with conspiring to become King of the Periwinkles and Emperor of the Muglins.

Everyone present would have known of similar ‘trials’ performed by the imprisoned Young Irelanders after their own failed uprising almost seventy years before. Despite the intent of the charade to relieve some of the tension, de Valera could not help but be unsettled, particularly when the onlookers took the game a little too far by clapping their hands to imitate the sound of a firing squad.[64]

But such diversions could not hold off the reality of the situation indefinitely. When Geraldine was able to visit her father on the 8th May, a week after his arrest, she was shocked by what she saw:

We were taken upstairs to a guardroom where Pa was alone, sitting on the bed. I hardly recognised him. He had been arrested more than a fortnight before and was extremely dirty and miserable and more pleased to see the soap and towel than the food. His beard had practically all fallen off and although he was only sixty-five, he looked eighty-five, a poor tired old man.[65]

Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that his attempts at poetry, composed on scraps of paper and spare envelopes, should have a suitably anguished tone:

My foes are many, my friends are but few,

But who can measure my joy in my treasure,

My God, my Heaven, by baby Jesú,

O sleep, sleep deep, my joy, my treasure,

O sleep, my baby, my baby Jesú.[66]

The Countess was having it no better. Another woman imprisoned at Mountjoy in the cell next to Josephine’s remembered her being “in a terrible state about her son having been executed, and she used to get awfully lonely and upset at night.” Talking to each other through the wall brought at least a measure of comfort.[67]

Exile

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Count and Countess Plunkett

Relief came for the pair when they were both notified on the 5th June that they could be released on condition of signing a form, agreeing to deportation to a place in England of their choice. Both signed, with Oxfordshire decided as their destination. They were reunited at Upper Fitzwilliam Street and spent four days there before leaving the country on the 9th, taking their daughter Fiona with them.

As part of their agreement, the couple promised to “abstain from making any speeches or attending or taking part, directly or indirectly, in any political or other demonstration or meeting before leaving Ireland.” They also agreed not to return home without written permission from the Home Secretary or the military authorities.[68]

Exactly why either of them had been arrested at all is unclear. Unlike their sons, they had not been arrested at the scene of an armed uprising. Neither had held leadership positions or any rank among the Irish Volunteers. The lack of a court-martial or trial means that whatever evidence the authorities had against the couple, as well the  reasons for detaining two aging non-combatants in the first place, will remain unknown.

The exiles arrived in London on the morning of the 10th before pressing on to Oxford. Count Plunkett attended Mass the following day before getting down to business and writing to the Prime Minister and later the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting (there is no indication that either replied, however).

Always ready to balance politics with his craft, he sent copies of some verse to a number of Irish publications. Hinting at his state of mind was the title of one: ‘O Blessed Gift of Poverty’.[69]

While their Oxford lodgings were a far cry from the luxurious residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street or the idyllic surroundings of Larkfield, materially the couple could have been worse. A natural entrepreneur, the Countess crafted furniture to sell and, though Geraldine snidely commented on their quality in her memoirs, she made enough to cover the rent and shopping (the latter task falling to Fiona). For home fires, the family made do with old newspapers and lumps of sugar.[70]

Still, the future looked bleak. They were to be dispossessed for an indefinite period, many of their belongings in Dublin had been stolen, and their eldest son was dead with the other two were about to embark on lengthy penal sentences. The National Museum lay over a burnt bridge, the Count having received notice of his suspension as its director. His position would “be determined upon the receipt of a Report from the Military Authorities,” which made any chance of reclamation an unlikely one.[71]

As if to rub salt into the wounds, Count Plunkett, who had chosen Oxford for access to its famous Bodleian Library, had his application for a library ticket refused.[72]

Continued in: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, 1917 (Part II)

References

[1] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 53-55

[2] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part V) p. 7

[3] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 210

[4] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1776), p. 108

[5] Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917, p. 53

[6] Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992), p. 77

[7] Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 43

[8] Plunkett, G.N. God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems (Dublin: John Mullany, 1877), p. 41

[9] Ibid, p. 55

[10] Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review (1921) Vol. X, No. 40, p. 662

[11] Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913), pp. 128, 167

[12] Laffan, pp. 7-9

[13] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 22, 30

[14] Tyrone Constitution, 08/07/1892

[15] Andrews, p. 49

[16] Plunkett Dillon, p. 125

[17] Ibid, 96

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,374/3/7

[19] Tynan, p. 383

[20] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,376/1/9

[21] NLI, MS 11,381/4/2

[22] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 32-3

[23] Tyrone Constitution, 01/07/1892

[24] Plunkett Dillon, p. 33 ; Walker, Brian M. (ed.) Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), p. 149

[25] Tyrone Constitution, 15/07/1892

[26] NLI, MS 11,374/7/2

[27] Irish Times, 08/07/1895

[28] Ibid, 17/07/1895

[29] Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, p. 153

[30] Ibid, p. 157

[31] Irish Times, 22/01/1898

[32] Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, p. 160

[33] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 34-35

[34] NLI, MS 11,374/7/6, MS 11,374/9/4

[35] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 31, 60 ; Andrews, p. 42

[36] Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917

[37] Irish Monthly, Vol. XL, pp. 608-12, November 1912

[38] Laffan, p. 13 ; Catholic Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, January 1917, p. 56 ; Andrews, p. 43

[39] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 153-4 ;  Plunkett, Jack (BMH / WS 488), pp. 2-3

[40] Plunkett, Jack, p. 2

[41] Plunkett, Jack, p. 12 ; Andrews, p. 42

[42] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 155-6

[43] Plunkett, Jack, pp. 20, 32

[44] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 151, 188, 201

[45] Ibid, p. 100 ; Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 5-6, 8

[46] Plunkett Dillon, p. 176

[47] Ibid, p. 211

[48] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. (introduction and notes by Travers, Pauric) Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), p. 29

[49] Irish Press, 26/05/1933

[50] Plunkett Dillon, p. 211

[51] Ibid

[52] ‘Memorandum by Sean T. O’Ceallaigh to Pope Benedict XV’, 18/05/1920, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, http://www.difp.ie/docs/1920/Appeal-to-Vatican/35.htm  (Accessed 21/02/2017)

[53] Plunkett Dillon, p. 211

[54] Curran, p. 54

[55] Plunkett Dillon, p. 227

[56] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 156), p. 14

[57] Good, pp. 7-8

[58] Plunkett, Grace, (BMH / WS 257, pp. 7-10

[59] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 222-3, 226

[60] Daly, Seamus (BMH / WS 360), p. 56

[61] NLI, MS 11,381/4/2, MS 11,381/4/3

[62] Plunkett Dillon, p. 238

[63] Nevin, Eugene (BMH / WS 1605), p. 53

[64] Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera – Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Random House, 1993), p. 76

[65] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 237-8

[66] NLI, MS 11,399

[67] Ibid, MS 11,381/4/1 ; Lynn, Kathleen (BMH / WS 357), p. 11

[68] NLI, MS 11,381/6/1

[69] NLI, MS 11,381/4/3

[70] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 251-2

[71] NLI, MS 11,374/14/3

[72] Plunkett Dillion, pp. 246, 252

Bibliography

Bureau of Military Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Daly, Seamus, WS 360

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Lynn, Kathleen, WS 357

Nevin, Eugene, WS 1605

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Plunkett, Grace, WS 257

Plunkett, Jack, WS 488

Robinson, Séumas, WS 156

Books

Andrews, C.S. Man of No Property (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. (introduction and notes by Travers, Pauric) Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996)

Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera – Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Random House, 1993)

Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992)

Plunkett, G.N. God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems (Dublin: John Mullany, 1877)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913)

Walker, Brian M. (ed.) Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland, 1801-1922 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978)

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Tyrone Constitution

Journals

Catholic Bulletin

Irish Monthly

Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review

 

Online Source

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy