Do personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.
An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.
“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.
“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”
Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.
Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.
But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:
Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.
Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”
Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.
Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.
This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:
Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.
For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.
Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and and became an implacable opponent to the Prime Minister, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.
If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.
Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.
German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.
Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.
On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”
The extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” wrote W.B. Yeats of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.
But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.
As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.
To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.
“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”
For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.
Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:
We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.
Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.
As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.
To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”
Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.
The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:
…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.
What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:
They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.
It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the book consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.
For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.
But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath the surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.
But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals mostly hailed from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and their pre-split meetings together saw them developing opinions at odds with those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”
Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.
Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.
Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.
As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:
I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.
As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:
Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.
For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.
This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).
An Extremist Speaks
Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:
Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.
Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.
Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.
Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.
‘Red with Anger’
For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.
When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”
“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.
Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.
Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.
Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.
That Gang of Mine
Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”
The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?
Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.
Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.
He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”
Only One Army
When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.
Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.
Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.
By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.
As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”
He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.
On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”
The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.
Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.
The Army of the Republic
Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:
At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.
The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.
Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.
“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.
“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.
As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”
This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”
For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.
Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.
Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.
Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.
The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.
The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.
After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.
The First Glorious Day
Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.
“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”
Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!
This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.
“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.
Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”
After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.
Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.
As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.
After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”
When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”
In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:
On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.
No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.
And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.
The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.
He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”
Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.
Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:
Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.
Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.
I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.
The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.
Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”
That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.
He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:
The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.
The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.
This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.
As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.
In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.
The West Awakens
The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:
As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.
That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.
Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.
A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.
“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.
The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.
Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:
Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.
Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:
As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.
And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.
The Sligo Situation
The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.
Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.
Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.
Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.
It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.
Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.
Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.
Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.
There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.
Success in Sligo
This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.
As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?
After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.
He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.
As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.
The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.
A Death in Athlone
The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.
“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.
“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.
Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.
Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.
This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.
Securing the Midlands
Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.
While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.
When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.
At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.
Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.
Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.
Squabbles in the Dáil
Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.
The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.
But not all agreed on the solution.
Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:
At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.
Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:
De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.
Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.
De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.
As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”
An Impossible Situation
Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”
Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.
All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.
At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.
It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.
Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.
Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”
At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.
Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.
She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.
In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”
The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.
The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.
In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:
They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.
At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.
As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:
I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.
Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.
A Longford Wedding
Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.
Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.
Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.
But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.
Or perhaps not.
A Return to Sligo
Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.
Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.
Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.
It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.
Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11
Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)
Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office )
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
It did not appear inevitable – even when the first of the 18-pound shells struck the embattled Four Courts – for the hostilities in Dublin to run over into a country-wide war. True, the capital remained a battleground, with the Irish Times telling of how its streets, a week after the hostilities had begun, “are still swept by sniper’s bullets and machine-gun fire, and the centre of the city is the scene of a heavy battle.”
Still, the newspaper did not think all this would amount to anything beyond a brief, limited affair. After all, the National Army could claim control of Mullingar, Athlone, Longford and Trim. The expected hotspots of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary remained demur, while the anti-Treaty posts in Drogheda and Donegal had fallen. As far as the Irish Times was concerned, the Free State had already won:
The moral effect of its success in Dublin will be incalculable, while the prestige and experience which has been gained by the Army will be valuable assets to the national cause. With remarkably few military causalities, the back of the stubborn rebellion has been broken, Ireland’s youthful Army has won its spurs.
Which is not to say the opposing side was entirely done. There were remnants of it yet in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and the odd marksmen aiming down from the tops of buildings. Meanwhile, reports were had of more ‘Irregulars’ mustering southwards towards Blessington, Co. Wicklow. But what could these desperadoes really hope to achieve?
While these men may be able to embarrass the Government for a while by raids from the Dublin Mountains, they are not likely to constitute anything in the nature of a serious menace to the State. If there have been an attempt to bring about a general rising throughout the country, it has failed.
The Irregulars hold a few isolated positions, but the Government’s writ is running in every one of the twenty-six counties to-day.
Dublin’s slow return to normality gave some credence to this upbeat forecast. Shops were reopening, food deliveries had resumed and workers could be seen returning to their offices. But, as it happened, the ‘rebellion’ had not been broken, its partisans remained as stubborn as before, and a fumbling National Army would struggle to keep a grip on the spurs it had only just earned.
A Bloody Phoenix
By August, it was not clear if any writ by the Government was in effect even in its capital city. The Four Courts had fallen, with much of its garrison led off into captivity, but the conflict showed no signs of diminishing, merely shifting into a less tangible presence.
No longer would the Irish Republican Army (IRA) occupy buildings and provide big, convenient targets to be battered into submission by artillery. When the Anti-Treatyites fought back, it was with slower, more gradual methods, the sort that had served so well in the war against the British. For the past two and a half years, from the start of 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, the IRA had used the techniques of the guerrilla to fight Crown forces to a standstill. There no reason to believe they would be any less effective against the new, indigenous foe.
Such recovered elusiveness was displayed on the 1st August 1922, when several shots were fired at National Army men on duty outside the Four Courts Hotel at 10 pm. Almost an hour later, further shots were aimed at soldiers standing in Brunswick Street. None were injured but, despite vigorous searches, no one was arrested either. This method of surprise assaults, sprung almost simultaneously in separate parts of the city, was to be repeated over the subsequent weeks, to the point of becoming an IRA hallmark.
The night of the 1st September was only one such occasion, when attacks were launched on several different National Army patrols, between 10 and 12 pm. Soldiers stationed in the Technical School on Lower Kevin Street found themselves sniped at from nearby streets. The Four Courts Hotel was again raked with bullets from a machine-gun on the other side of the Liffey. One Pro-Treatyite was wounded, with another narrowly avoiding worse when his cap was struck off his head. At the same time, shots were made against the soldiers by City Hall.
In another part of the county that night, a small National Army guard in the schoolhouse at Rathfarnham managed to drive off an attack that lasted twenty minutes. The assailants paused in their retreat to set fire to the local police barracks. It was the second time the building had been so mistreated, the previous occasion being as part of the war against Britain. Other than that, the only causality in Rathfarnham was a wounded Pro-Treatyite unlucky enough to have been shot and wounded in the abdomen just before the assault began.
“Sniping occurred in other localities, and the shooting was continued until after 1 o’clock in the morning, when only spasmodic outbursts were heard,” reported the Irish Times. “The troops were very active in the streets, stopping and questioning those who were moving about late at night.”
Explosions in the City
Active or not, such ex post facto searches were inadequate in preventing subsequent incidents. On the 13th September, at 3 pm, a bomb was thrown in the path of a lorry carrying National Army men as it drove along Eden Quay. Two of the Pro-Treatyites were reported to be slightly wounded in the blast, along with some unfortunate bystanders.
Later that day, a little after 6 pm, three more military lorries were passing by St Stephen’s Green West when some men who had been loitering behind the park railings pulled out pistols and opened fire. The mass of civilians fled for the shelter of nearby shops and laneways, the noise of the gunshots being briefly drowned out by the detonation of bombs cast into the fray.
It was later estimated that three such explosives were used altogether, one thrown by the group in St Stephen’s Green, the other two from a twin ambush party next to the College of Surgeons. Unscathed, the Free Staters leapt off their vehicles and gave chase through the greenery of the park, pursuing some if their fleeing assailants into Dawson Street and others to Lower Leeson Street. One ambusher was overtaken and arrested, the only other causality besides three civilians wounded in the mayhem.
‘The Most Nerve-Racking Cork Has Experienced’
A similar picture was unfolding in Cork. Initially, Major-General Emmet Dalton had been pleasantly surprised at the lack of resistance when he led pro-Treaty forces into the city on the 10th August 1922. He felt confident enough to crow to his superiors that the enemy had been “crowded into positions of a barren nature and without a base for supplies.”
Soon enough, however, Dalton, like countless conquerors before and since, was to find out that taking a place is quite different to holding it.
On the night of the 14th August, a number of bridges to the north and west of Cork City were destroyed under the cover of darkness. The IRA had been imitating a similar move on the 5th August by their Dublin comrades, although whereas the Dubliners had badly botched their operation, suffering heavy losses, the Corkonians had been far more successful.
Twelve days later, the evening of the 26th was to be described by the Cork Examiner as “one of the most nerve-racking that Cork has experienced for quite a long time.” The sounds of revolvers and machine-guns reverberated through the streets, convincing many in the suburbs that a major battle was taking place in the urban centre. When morning came and the stock was taken of the situation, it was shown that the IRA, true to form, had been active at different points.
First attacked had been the old police barracks on College Road, the only such building not razed during the flight of the Anti-Treatyites from the city. Bombs had shattered the unprotected top-storey windows, the lower ones only surviving due to their steel shutters. But the besiegers had not had everything their own way, with four of their number captured when the garrison emerged in a surprise counter-attack.
No Speedy End
The next assault was on the train station at Albert Quay shortly after midnight. This was not the first time it had been shot at, having been the target of snipers before, but this was the most determined enfilade so far, as gunmen positioned in the ruins of City Hall and the Carnegie Library opened fire, to be returned by Pro-Treatyites from across the river. The guerrillas pulled back but, as the Cork Examiner described:
…their retreat did not mean the end of the firing. Volley after volley rang out in various parts of the city later in the night, and it was assumed that small parties of irregulars and patrols of the National troops came into contact at many places during the early hours of the morning.
Meanwhile, Corks most famous son, Michael Collins, was lying in state in Dublin, slain while driving out of his home county. There had been hopes among his colleagues, as Ernest Blythe described, “that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken.” Instead, the conflict began to resemble a lingering disease, one that the country could not quite shake off.
The Free Staters achieved some success in Cork on the 2nd September, when a secret munitions factory was uncovered in a house on the corner of South Mall and Queen (now Father Matthew) Street. Bombs, ammunition and, most critically, the machinery with which to churn out more such munitions were found. While a blow had been struck against the insurgency, the very fact that the IRA had been able to set up such a factory in the heart of the city was an uncomfortable reminder of just how tenuous the Free State’s grip really was.
Such a loss did little to hinder the Corkonian guerrillas as far as could be ascertained. On the 18th September, Moore’s Hotel was raked with machine-gun bullets from across the river. The Pro-Treatyites on duty returned shots with a heavy firearm of their own, the exchange lasting for five minutes, during which an elderly woman was struck eight times while sitting by a window. As she recovered in hospital, the wounds were judged to be superficial but the woman remained in critical condition, suffering from – unsurprisingly – shock.
‘No Zeal – No Dash’
By early November 1922, Dalton was reporting to the Minister of Defence, General Richard, Mulcahy, that he was “beginning to lose hope…there is no zeal – no dash – no organisation or determination.”
Public support had waned to the point that Dalton believed there were more republicans in Cork than there had been during the June election. He blamed the lack of boots he had on the ground, citing how one could travel seventy or eighty miles through the county without coming across a single National Army man.
His warning to Mulcahy was stark: “In Cork, we are going to be beaten unless we wake up and at once.”
Dalton was suffering from morale problems of his own. He had left for Dublin in late September to be wed, returning to his command with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. November saw him abruptly handing in his resignation, leaving the top brass uncertain with whom to replace him. Two applicants were rejected in turn by the Cork officers, suspicious as they were of outsiders, with a third refusing the offer.
The Quartermaster-General, Seán Ó Muirthile, finally agreed to take over in January 1923, albeit on a temporary basis. His reticence was understandable in light of how he had only narrowly avoided death the month before, when a grenade was thrown at his car in Dublin, hitting him on the head but rolling out of harm’s way before it could explode.
The war appeared to be at a stalemate, the Free State unable to deliver the killing wound, while the IRA lacked the strength and numbers to do more than chip at the new government. The impasse was threatening to drag both armies down into a morass of lethargy.
When Father Dominic O’Leary, a priest with republican sympathies, wrote to Ernie O’Malley in Dublin on the 12th September 1922, he told with some amazement about the large number of men he saw outside the recruitment office for the National Army on Brunswick Street. When asked, they had told the padre that since the war was as good as over in their view, they might as well sign up for pay at minimal risk.
Father O’Leary suggested to O’Malley that a few bullets be fired over their head to disabuse them of such blithe notions. If that failed, then some more shots, and not as a warning, were called for. “Why not fire, if we are in earnest?” the priest asked bitterly.
Meanwhile, O’Leary said:
I am mixing with the people, our own people who are daily asking what is being done, with the enemy who are gloating that Dublin is finished and the rest of the country will soon be the same, with the members of the IRA who are ‘fed up’ with enforced idleness, with their dependants who make no complaint except that the boys are being arrested and are doing nothing, that the enemy and his spies are being allowed such latitude.
It was unlikely that O’Malley needed any backseat generals to point out how ‘fed up’ everyone was. He had been pushing for more aggressive tactics for some time but to no avail, stymied by his more cautious Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, who preferred his warfare on the conservative side. “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics,” Lynch wrote in reply to O’Malley’s impatience.
O’Malley might have taken solace with how the other side was not faring much better. The promised wages that had tempted many into the National Army were frequently tardy. Much needed equipment also had the habit of not materialising.
One colonel admitted that the quarter-mastering “was simply diabolical…I had two enemies, one was the Irregulars and the other was the QMG [Quartermaster-General].” Soldiers resorted to dyeing their civilian clothes green for want of proper uniforms, or purchasing khaki cloth with which to make improvised uniforms.
This deadlock was recognised as such by the special correspondent for the Irish Times. Writing on the 20th September, he described how “ever since the radical change in strategy made by the irregulars in August it has been increasingly difficult for the national Army to strike any blow of immediate effect.”
The reverting by the IRA to guerrilla warfare – the change of strategy noted by the journalist – denied the Free State military the chance to bring its superior numbers and firepower to bear. Instead, its upper echelons had tried to adjust accordingly:
Faced by this change, the commanders of the National Army determined to adopt a plan of campaign which should have been suitable. Towns were garrisoned with posts of varying size to keep the irregulars from supplies, mobile columns organised to pursue the enemy in their fastness and “sweeps” organised to clear areas where the irregulars were dispersed in small bodies.
‘Should’ was the operative word here. Problems facing this bold innovation included the poor training and inexperience of many junior officers, compounded by insufficient transport for these proposed sweeps.
Fatigue increasingly plagued the pro-Treaty forces as well as the country as a whole. “We were losing the support of the people, our men were war weary and the going was too heavy for us,” remembered Padraig O’Connor, later the Director of Operations to the National Army. It was not until February 1923 that some semblance of order took shape but, until then, “our men had no grub, no uniforms and no pay.”
Todd Andrews had these small victories in mind in later years as he tried to make sense of where his side had gone so badly wrong. He could not help wondering if things would have been different if his fellow Anti-Treatyites had mustered several large commando teams with which to deliver a knock-out punch. True, “our morale was very low, but if we had the wit to realize it, the morale of the Free Staters, put to the test, was no better.” The rapid collapse of the National Army in Kilkenny was surely proof of that.
But inertia was as much a danger as bullets and prison. Even areas where the Anti-Treatyites were strongest – namely Cork, Kerry and Tipperary – could not escape the creeping sense of helplessness as more and more high-ranking officers were lost to enemy raids. Though their vacant positions were filled readily enough, the hard-won knowledge these men had provided could not be so easily replaced.
For a while, in the latter months of 1922 and early 1923, it seemed likely that the war would be decided by whichever side fell apart first.
Such frustrations fed into the burgeoning hopes among both armies that they could escape the quagmire they were in via the much less painful method of negotiation. But, as far as many in the Free State Government was concerned, however, such consideration was at best wishful thinking, at worst defeatism. Blythe recalled how:
Individual Commanders in various areas, instead of pursing the war with full vigour as they ought to have done, were inclined to try to make contact with their opposite numbers and enter upon discussion. This seems to have extended, with the exception of a few higher officers, right through the top ranks of the Army.
It got to the point that the Cabinet had to hold a meeting to rule out even the thought of negotiations. There would be no further dialogue with the Anti-Treatyites save when it came to accepting their surrender. The National Army from now on would throw its energy towards final victory – at least, in theory.
At a subsequent Cabinet session, the Minister of Defence, Mulcahy, tried to open with an awkward joke: “Let everyone put his gun on the table.”
Perhaps such an attempt at humour was a disguise for nerves. As Ernest Blythe sat at the opposite end of the table, waiting for the last of his colleagues to straggle in late, he was curious as to what Mulcahy had to say that was so important to call this urgent meeting.
Mulcahy proceeded to inform them that he had made arrangements some time ago to meet de Valera. This had been before the Cabinet decided against any further tête-à-têtes with the enemy. Mulcahy had been present when the choice was made. He had apparently agreed in full, only to go straight out of the Government building and into his car, to the rendezvous with Éamon de Valera as originally intended.
Mulcahy gave an outline of the forbidden talk, though most of the room was too shocked to pay much attention. When Mulcahy finished, there was only an uncomfortable silence. “All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation,” as Blythe remembered.
But given that the Government was on a war footing, with none of them besides Mulcahy knowing much about military matters, nobody felt confident in taking such a step. Mercifully, President W.T. Cosgrave broke the oppressive silence with a curt “That’s all” and left the room, followed by the rest of his Cabinet.
Nothing else was said. Mulcahy never entirely recovered his standing in the Cabinet, at least not where Blythe was concerned. “Personally, I may say that the whole incident affected my mind very deeply in regard to General Mulcahy, and I never had full confidence in him afterwards.”
Striking a Bargain
Within the upper echelons of the other side, there were similar thoughts and fancies towards sidestepping the need for further violence. On the 28th September, Con Moloney, the Adjutant General to the IRA Executive, took the daring step of posing to his colleagues a pair of questions that many of them must surely have pondered already, if not quite so openly: “Will or can the enemy beat us? Can we beat the enemy?”
The answers to both, in Moloney’s estimate, was an emphatic ‘no’.
What then, he asked, was the alternative? For now, the IRA had to maintain a steady course until the Free Staters were willing to talk. At which point, Moloney wrote: “We will be able to strike a hard bargain.”
Anticipating the outcries, Moloney took a suitably no-nonsense tone: “There is no use blinding ourselves to the past. Negotiations are bound to come sooner or later.” For Moloney’s part, he would be in favour of ending the war under the following guarantees:
Any future Ministers of Defence to be nominees of the reunited Army.
The Chief of Staff to be elected by a convention, where attendance would be restricted to IRA members from before the 1921 Truce.
The Army to be controlled by an Executive and an Army Council, both bodies also to be elected at conventions.
The Executive to have the right to declare war and peace. The Government could also exercise these same powers but subject to approval of the Executive.
All the talk of conventions was a throwback to the months preceding the Civil War, when the anti-Treaty IRA had displayed their independence in the holding of three such gatherings, where issues had been debated without outside interference or supervision. What Moloney equated to a ‘hard bargain’ would be in effect a surrender by the other side. After all, the Free State was not waging a war in order to submit itself to the dictates of its own military.
In contrast, Liam Lynch made plain his preference for the simpler, might-makes-right approach. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy,” he told Liam Deasy, one of his closest confidants, in early September. “We should strike our hardest for some time, and this would make the question of policy easier to settle.”
Unlike Moloney, Lynch had little faith in the prospect of talks. Much had already been suggested by one party or another and none had amounted to anything. When Éamon de Valera was making his way to see Deasy in Co. Cork in late August 1922, Lynch sent a dispatch ahead to warn Deasy not to encourage the other man in any of his schemes on how best to end the war, ideas that Lynch clearly had not the faintest interest in.
Lynch had not always thought that way. Even after the assault on the Four Courts, Lynch had nurtured the hope that the Pro-Treatyites could be made to see reason. Only after the ceasefire in Limerick he had helped sign was thrown on the scrapheap by the Free State was he convinced that this would be a fight to the finish. It was a course he would remain on unswervingly, taking with him the rest of his army for as long as he drew breath.
Still, he did nothing to reprimand Moloney. Neither did he discourage the possibility of negotiations – for now.
Meeting the Enemy
Colonel Tom Ennis and Captain Charles Russell, both senior officers in the National Army, had already cut striking figures in the conflict. The latter had flown a Bristol fighter plane over the town of Buttevant, Co. Cork, while using a machine-gun to strafe an enemy-occupied house, swooping low enough for the return bullets to pierce his airplane.
As for Ennis, he had led the first of the National Army soldiers into Cork City on the August 1922, brushing aside the few IRA defenders on the way. Ennis proved as chivalrous as he was formidable, as his subsequent refusal to have any prisoners executed, in defiance of Free State policy, ensured that Cork would remain unsullied by this grim measure.
Ennis was thus a fitting choice to play peacemaker. He had tried before, while assisting his then-commanding officer, Emmet Dalton, shortly after their capture of Cork. But this initiative had fallen through due to the insistence by the Free Staters on an unconditional surrender. When Deasy reported this to his Chief of Staff, Lynch did not doubt that the two men had been acting on their Government’s orders but was baffled as to why they did not contact him directly, the idea that anything could be accomplished outside the proper chain of command being anathema to him.
By the time of another outreach attempt on the 13th October 1922, Ennis was feeling more broadminded. After being given safe passages, Deasy and Tom Barry drove to a neutral house near Crookstown, Co. Cork, to meet Ennis and Russell (there was no mention of any involvement by Dalton this time). An IRA intelligence officer, Seán Hyde, accompanied the other two Anti-Treatyites. Later appointed the O/C of the Western Command, Hyde would furnish Lynch with the sort of overly optimistic reports that Deasy blamed for feeding Lynch’s misplaced determination to fight on.
As well as the four military men, Father Tom Duggan was present at the talks. Liked and trusted by both sides in the Treaty divide, the priest would continue to play a prominent – and, for Lynch, largely unwelcome – role in subsequent peace attempts. Such talks would become a taboo subject with Lynch, who did his utmost to stamp them out, convinced that they were a detriment to morale. For the moment, however, he was content to grant the authorisation to give them a chance.
The meeting did not enjoy the most amiable of starts. Deasy began by telling the Free State pair that tempers were running hot on his side due to the legislation being put through the Dáil, establishing military courts with the power of execution for unauthorised possession of arms, a move clearly aimed at POWs. Such was the mood of the Anti-Treatyites, Deasy warned, that they had decided on reprisals against those held responsible.
Despite this sobering opening, the rest of the talks were conducted in a friendly manner. When it was time to depart, the opposing sides did so in good spirits, Russell taking the time afterwards to drive the two enemy envoys through the Free State sentries.
A Role for Politics?
Another question to consider was where Éamon de Valera fitted in. Joseph O’Connor had already conferred on the matter with the former President of Dáil Éireann at the outbreak of the war in the former’s York Street headquarters. While the battle enfolded in the city centre, O’Connor, an officer in the Dublin IRA as well as part of the IRA Executive, tried persuading de Valera of the political and propaganda benefits if:
They could set up a Republican Committee to take the benefit of the Army successes and force them on the attention of the ordinary people. This, I was sure, would be good for the Nation and the fighting men.
De Valera was not so sure. He understood enough about the Executive to know that the IRA officers making it up would resent an interloper like him. He eventually agreed to give O’Connor’s notion a try, or at least bring it to the attention of the other anti-Treaty leaders who were holed up in the Hammam Hotel on Sackville Street. O’Connor gave him a guide to help him through the Free State cordon to the Hammam.
“I never heard what happened to the proposal, nor how it was received,” O’Connor later wrote. He was not too concerned, sure as he was that all the IRA had to do was press on and the Pro-Treatyites would come to their senses. When that did not happen, it was decided that the Dubliners should abandon their posts and revert to the old methods of insurgency. “What a pity it was that we lost those few first days in Dublin!” O’Connor later complained.
At first, it was hoped that they could keep the Free Staters confined to the city. When that too did not come to pass, and the IRA elsewhere in the country went on the defensive, O’Connor feared that the Republic would be lost without a means to rally the masses to its cause.
He saw a chance when he received word that Lynch had called for a session of the Executive, set to take place in Tipperary town in October 1922. O’Connor had been pressing de Valera to take up the political reins as they had discussed before. For hours at a house in Stillorgan, he entreated de Valera to find some kind of formula they could use, but to little avail. Pulling on his overcoat as he prepared to leave, O’Connor implored the other man to give the question some further thought.
Over the Galtees
They met again in Upper Mount Street, just before O’Connor set off for Tipperary, and de Valera handed him some proposals:
These followed the original lines – the political party accepting responsibility for all matters outside the actual direction of the fighting forces in the field; the Army Authorities to work in conjunction with the elected republican representatives and to give them the full co-operation in maintaining the freedom of our whole country.
Pleased, O’Connor promised he would deliver these to the Executive. Travelling by train to Limerick Junction, he walked the rest of the three miles to Tipperary town. Arriving at the safe-house prepared in advance, he learnt that the meeting had been postponed due to the presence of the enemy who were housed in the town’s barracks, a stone’s throw away from where O’Connor was staying. The Anti-Treatyites were having to survive while cheek-by-jowl to those who would capture or kill them on sight.
He whiled away the time, staring idly into the barrack square, until being picked up that night by two others who were to guide him to the new meeting place in the Glen of Aherlow. As they crossed the Galtee Mountains, a sudden fog forced them to wait until it cleared. When it did, “we got a beautiful view of the Golden Vale. It was surely a land worth fighting for.”
O’Connor arrived to find a number of his colleagues already there. That he was wearing a hard hat in the mountains struck them as hilariously incongruous. When Lynch appeared, the others noticed that their Chief of Staff had lost weight, his normally thin face bonier than ever.
Lynch had come by pony and trap, accompanied by P.J. Ruttledge, the Vice O/C for the IRA Western Command. They also encountered the thick mist on the way. “We couldn’t see the road over the mountains,” Ruttledge wrote. “Sometimes we were on it, other times not. We half walked, half wandered.”
En route, the two men had passed through Carlow. When the senior IRA officer there asked what they would do if stopped by a Free State patrol, Lynch had pulled out a gun in response. “I’ll know what I’ll say,” he said.
The Executive Meets
That display of bravado seemed to set the tone for the subsequent gathering. Spread out over the course of two days, the 16th and 17th October 1922, the sessions of the IRA Executive were notable in the steely determination on display. Indeed, to an onlooker, it might have appeared that the Civil War had already been won and all that was left was the settling of affairs, with a confident eye to the future.
First on the agenda was the defence of Lynch’s good name, an issue on which Lynch seemed incapable of moving past. Acting as chairman, he explained to the others how he had been brought before Eoin O’Duffy immediately after the attack on the Four Courts, a little under four months ago.
This interview with the enemy general had been used to cast him “in a very dishonourable light by Free State propaganda”, which alleged that Lynch had talked himself out of imprisonment by promising to remain neutral. When the war was over, Lynch assured his audience, he would insist on the event being properly examined.
That he would be in a position to demand anything was taken for granted. In any case, the topic moved on to one more useful: the results of the talk Deasy and Barry had had with the two National Army representatives. There, Captain Russell had proposed:
The disbandment of both armies.
A formation of a Volunteer Army under an agreed Independent Executive, whose officers would be pledged to force the Government to delete the more objectionable elements from the Free State Constitution within a stated time.
The new Army to be servants of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned, e.g. law and order.
No further Minister of Defence.
In place of the aforementioned Minister, a staff commander would liaison with the Government when necessary.
A police force to be modelled on the Canadian system, as in one man appointed in each town who could call on the civil population for assistance if need’s be.
(The last point was something of an oddity. It may have been influenced by memories of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and perhaps by a desire not to follow in the footsteps of the Free State in its attempt at a centralised police force of its own.)
Russell had told Barry and Deasy that, upon his return to Dublin, he would present these proposals to Mulcahy as the Minister of Defence. If this failed, he promised to agitate for defections among like-minded souls in the National Army.
Notably, this last part of Russell’s – “to leave the Free State Army” – was crossed out by Lynch in the Executive minutes and replaced with “to force the issue with M/D [Minister of Defence]”. Lynch had striven to keep the IRA intact in the months before the Civil War, and it seems that he remained true to this principle even now. Any new army would come as a whole, not fractured, one.
The hope that the Free State would simply cave in on itself was nurtured among its opponents, particularly when victory by any other means had become distinctly unlikely. Even the Eeyore-ish Liam Deasy, looking on gloomily as the war effort collapsed around him, had dared to believe that “the separatist element in the Free State Army…would see the futility of reimposing English domination, what many of them had fought to break.”
Following points discussed by the Executive in reference to Russell’s proposals were:
The Army to be reorganised to how it had been prior to the signing of the Treaty in December 1921.
A Provisional Executive, pending the appointment of an Executive at the annual convention.
The Constitution must be formed so as to definitely exclude Ireland from the British Empire [in other words, the negation of the Treaty].
The Army was to be the servant of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned.
The second day was spent mostly on fine-tuning what had already been laid down. An Army Council was formed, headed by Lynch (as Chief of Staff) and made up of Ernie O’Malley (Acting Assistant Chief of Staff), Liam Deasy (Deputy Chief of Staff), Tom Derrig (Assistant Adjutant General) and Frank Aiken, the only one of them not present that day. This body was empowered by the rest of the Executive to discuss terms of peace in so much that would not bring Ireland back into the British Empire.
What to do with the instruments of the Free State was also discussed. As for the fledgling police force in the form of the Civic Guard, it was decided to postpone any definite decision until more was known about it. The same went for the magistrates and civil administration, which could still be of some use. The newly found, if outlandish, interest in the Canadian way of policing was put on the backburner – for good, as it turned out, as it was never raised again.
Another proposal from Moloney – though presumably O’Connor had talked to him about it beforehand – urged, on behalf of the Executive, for the absent de Valera to form a government, one which would preserve the continuity of the Republic:
We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic, and we empower it to make an arrangement with the Free State Government, or with the British Government provided such arrangement does not bring the country in to the British Empire.
In case anyone was unclear as to who would be calling the shots: “Final decision on this question to be submitted for ratification to the Executive.”
De Valera’s response to receiving this warning – thinly masked as a conditional promise that his army partners would follow any new government of his for as long as he did what he was told – could only be imagined.
At least he would be free to choose his cabinet, which would be little more than a government-in-exile for as long as the current circumstances persisted. It was also window-dressing, a façade of constitutional respectability over the hard truth that power in the anti-Treaty camp rested in its military which, for all its talk of acting as the servant, had no intention of being anything other than the master.
Custodians of the Republic
A proclamation was next issued, blaming the current disorder on those public representatives who had, last December, voted for the Treaty and, in doing so, “violated their pledge and their oaths.” Under such circumstances, there was only one thing to be done:
WE, on behalf of the soldiers of the Republic in concert with such faithful members of DÁIL ÉIREANN, as are at liberty, acting in the spirit of our Oath as the final custodians of the Republic, have called upon the former President, Éamon de Valera, to resume the Presidency, and to form a Government which shall preserve inviolate the sacred trust of National Sovereignty and Independence.
The words ‘junta’ or ‘military dictatorship’ were never uttered. Quite likely, such terms never occurred to the men present. As far as they were concerned, they were merely custodians. Any power they had invested in themselves was for the purpose of righting a wrong, of forcing a wayward civil government back on the only true path it could take.
Yet a junta or a dictatorship was exactly what would have happened had Lynch had had his way.
Even before the outbreak of the civil war, when it seemed likely that the two opposing IRA factions would be reunite under a GHQ consisting men from both sides – an arrangement very similar to what had been proposed at the Executive meeting – Lynch had shown hints of a budding autocrat. According to Ruttledge, Lynch had:
…thought that whatever job he was offered on the composite staff, that if he got it, he would be able to control the army. He was very persistent in his belief.
As for the proposals put forward by Ennis and Russell, there is no evidence that they were ever read, let alone considered, by anyone in the Free State and certainly not by anyone of importance. That such a conciliatory attempt ever happened remains nothing more than a historical curiosity, a tease for the battered Anti-Treatyites that victory and salvation might just be around the corner.
For all the self-congratulation, at least two Executive members left the meeting distinctly unimpressed.
To O’Malley, all the talking had done was expose the lack of any coherent strategy besides waiting for success to fall into their laps. In practical terms, O’Malley knew, this would amount to being worn down and picked off piecemeal.
Not that he had much better to contribute. His suggestion for the Munster men to form motorised columns – much like he had done in the first week of the war – with which to attack enemy posts was clearly fantastical, given the paucity of even basic resources for the Anti-Treatyites. Resigned, O’Malley returned to a Dublin that was becoming increasingly fraught with enemy raids and searches.
Despite his disappointment, O’Malley remained as committed to the war as before. He and Lynch may have differed on many points, but not that key one. If nothing else, he had found the Executive get-together useful as a talking shop.
“You may remember that you promised to forward me particulars with regard to the manufacture of Smoke Grenades when I was at the Executive meeting,” O’Malley wrote to Deasy on the 26th October. O’Malley also wanted information from Deasy on incendiary grenades. “I think there should be a regular exchange of ideas on this subject,” he said.
Deasy, on the other hand, had already drawn the conclusion that the war was as good as lost. As he studied the performance of Munster units he oversaw as O/C of the First Southern Division, mulling over the mess they were in:
It appeared to me then that no real resistance was being offered to the Free State Army, apart from the Second Kerry and Fifth Cork Brigades and that we could never achieve anything we hoped for. Despite all this, Lynch was entirely unmoved in his steady determination to continue the fight.
Lynch, in Deasy’s opinion, put far too much stock in the reports he received, many of which told him only what he wanted to believe. If only Lynch had seen more of the areas he was reading about, Deasy thought, and met the officers on the ground, he might have developed a more realistic view of what was possible – and what was not.
But this still might not have been enough, Deasy concluded: “[Lynch] was however, so set on victory that I doubt even this would have changed his thinking.” Deasy could not help but admire him all the same. His commander was “to the very end an idealist with the highest principles as his guide and it was not in his nature to surrender or to compromise. He ultimately gave his life for those principles.”
Whatever his growing doubts about the war, Deasy had none in regards to Lynch’s leadership, being content at least to follow him as ardently as ever. Lynch had reciprocated such fealty when he made Deasy his Deputy Chief of Staff. It was a trust that was to be severely shaken.
After leaving the Executive meeting, Deasy took command of his new post, near Tincurry, Co. Tipperary. In addition to his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff, Deasy was also to take charge of a newly-formed division, the First Western, encompassing all of Munster, along with Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and Laois. He was keen to make contact with the units of the last two counties as he knew very little about them.
With this in mind, he set off towards North Tipperary. The sunshine that day was unusually bright for November, not that he had time to appreciate it, being forced to avoid the main roads and even the secondary ones, going cross-country instead, such were the frequency of Free State patrols.
He made it to Boherlahan at dusk, just when two enemy lorries were passing through, forcing him to vault over a wall. Reaching Kilcommon, Deasy, who had been on the move for the past fortnight, covering in his estimate a hundred and forty miles on foot, finally had the chance to sleep soundly in the safe-house for the night.
He was also able to make contact with Paddy Lacken, the O/C of the North Tipperary Brigade. Lacken was the rare case of an officer for that area still at liberty, most of the others being in jail, leaving North Tipperary essentially dormant. The territory from Nenagh to the Offaly border was in Free State hands, as was East and Mid-Limerick.
It was a depressing, if not wholly unexpected, picture, one that did not improve when Lacken took Deasy in a pony trap to Toomevara for a rendezvous with some officers from Offaly and Laois who, after two days of waiting, never appeared.
Deasy could only conclude that they had been captured. He stoically accepted this likelihood before withdrawing from the plains of Toomevara for the relative safety of the Tipperary hills, developing a chest complaint on the way. Lacken took charge, leading Deasy to the home of a friend of his on the southern slopes of Slieve Felin, arriving there safely despite the thick fog which would at least deter hostile search parties.
Deasy was recovering at this house when Lacken arrived, during a break in the mist, with a copy of that day’s newspaper. To his horror, Deasy read how two Dáil deputies, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been ambushed in Dublin on the 7th December, with the former slain and the other wounded in a hail of bullets.
The following day, in retaliation, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Prison, where they had been held since the fall of the Four Courts. They were then executed by firing squad.
Deasy had known all the victims, being particularly close to Hales and Barrett. His already fragile health crumbling further, he slipped into a black despair, spending a sleepless night trying to figure out where everything had gone so horribly wrong.
The Republican Itch
The week crawled by with excruciating slowness. By the 14th December, Deasy, believing he was well enough to leave his sickbed, arranged with Lacken to depart the next morning. He was undressing for bed when he saw the first symptoms of scabies on his thighs. His condition had worsened by the morning, with his skin opening all over, blood and pus oozing out of the cracks.
The faithful Lacken helped him to a nearby doctor who bandaged the affected flesh, allowing him at least to travel, albeit gingerly, in a pony and trap. Crossing the Galtees, Deasy spent the next three weeks in bed, the scabies having spread throughout his whole body. His misery was alleviated somewhat by a female member of the family he was staying with. A trained nurse, she helped to apply the necessary bandages.
Visitors from the Tipperary IRA such as Con Moloney, Dan Breen and Bill Quirke kept him abreast of news, not that there was much to report. By early January, Deasy had recovered to again set forth, assisted this time by Quirke, to south Kilkenny.
Passing through the area, Deasy and Quirke could not help but notice how many of the Anti-Treatyites there had been captured, forcing the pair to rely less on local guides and more on their own wits. They neared the house at Cloggan where they were due to meet Seán Lehane, the commander of the Wexford IRA, and almost walked into a trap.
End of the Road
Lehane and his staff had been arrested in a raid on their Wexford headquarters a few days earlier. Found on them were dispatches about the upcoming get-together at Cloggan. National Army soldiers were lying in wait when one of the few IRA officers still at large, Ted Moore, was able to warn Deasy and Quirke in time.
As they doubled back, Moore mapped out a route for the two others to take. On a bright moonlight night, the duo said their goodbyes to Moore before a boatman ferried them over the Suir River. After spending a night with one of Quirke’s friends in the area, they continued on to the Nire Valley in west Waterford. Free State patrols were by now a common threat and, while Quirke was hopeful that Moore would continue to do his bit, Deasy inwardly wrote off Kilkenny and Waterford.
They had reached the last stage of the return journey to Tincurry. Acutely aware of the dangers of discovery by one of the enemy search parties, Deasy and Quirke agreed to separate. Deasy retreated to a friendly house on a hillside of the Galtees and, worn out from the week of punishing cross-country travel, slept soundly.
Later, he would at least have the consolation that Quirke had managed to escape.
He was awoken by the owner of the house, who informed him that the building was surrounded by Free Staters, some of whom were already inside. It took a few seconds for this to sink in and then Deasy was aware of a green-coated figure at the foot of his bed with a revolver.
Ernie O’Malley had faced a similar choice when cornered in Dublin two months ago. Unlike O’Malley, Deasy decided against a shootout that could only end one way.
More soldiers entered. After giving their captive time to dress, they searched the room. A resigned Deasy looked on as they found the loaded revolver under his pillow and the spare rounds of ammunition inside his trousers’ pocket. Not a word was said or needed to be, as all of them, Deasy included, knew what this meant. At least he was allowed a cup of tea and slice of bread before being marched off to Cahir.
The subsequent court-martial on the 25th January passed by in a blur. Deasy remained mute as the charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm was read out by the prosecuting officer, who finished by asking for the maximum penalty. The court agreed, and the sentence of death was pronounced, to be carried out the following morning.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 279
Sitting by an open window on the morning of the 28th June 1922, the yellow lights of the Dublin tramway blurred by the drizzle, the journalist who would publish under the penname ‘Nichevo’ looked outside at the sound of marching boots:
Irish troops were on the move. Down the street they tramped in the misting rain, two long files of them on either side of the road, strapping men and whistling boys, equipped with all the cruel paraphernalia of modern war.
An hour had passed since the journalist had seen the last of the soldiers when the clock struck four and Dublin shook. From the distance could be heard the boom of artillery, punctuated by the snap of rifles and a harsh machine-gun rattle. “The whole city seemed to be alive with noise,” he wrote. “Shots echoed and re-echoed from the dripping walls…The battle for the Four Courts had begun.”
Venturing out in the afternoon, ‘Nichevo’ joined the thick throng of spectators lining the quays, across from the centre of attention. For all their bombast, the 18-pound shells from the National Army artillery had made little impact on the Four Courts, save for a few nicks and dents on the walls. Still, the sight alone was too much for some onlookers to bear in silence.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said one elderly man, leaning over to spit into the Liffey waters.
An End and the Start
The bombardment continued unrelentingly that evening, and all night, and then throughout the following day. News filtered to the crowd that several buildings in nearby Sackville (now O’Connell) Street had also been seized by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with snipers taking up position on rooftops. “Now and then an armoured car would dash through the streets, but one saw very few signs of military activity, although one heard plenty of them.”
One thing ‘Nichevo’ could see was that the Four Courts, a newly blown hole in its flank, could not hold out for much longer. As the odds of the beleaguered defenders lessened, their compatriots elsewhere in the city centre conversely grew bolder, emerging out of cover to grab food, bedding, kitchen utensils and anything else of use for a drawn-out siege.
Things finally grew quiet that night, as if the artillery guns had tired themselves out. Then came the thundering denouement on the morning of the 30th:
An ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin. Compared to this, the booming of the 18-pounder gun had been the merest murmur. Windows were smashed, houses shook from roof to cellar, the sky was darkened with a cloud of flying debris as the Four Courts disappeared into smoke.
A mine had detonated inside the Four Courts. The building complex was left in ruins, along with the resistance of its defenders. Grimy, red-eyed men and boys were led out, some shaken, others grimly contumacious, and escorted by green-coated soldiers towards the Jameson’s Distillery, where they would be held until transferred to Mountjoy Prison.
“It must be all over now,” wrote ‘Nichevo’. While Sackville Street remained a battleground, there was now a lull in the fighting, and a stillness had settled over the city. “Can it be nearing the end? Please God.”
But, as far as some were concerned, it was most certainly not over.
Despite his capture as part of the garrison, Ernie O’Malley was able to slip out with several others through a side-door in the Jameson Distillery. The escapees hurried over the Church Street Bridge and walked along the river until they were opposite the still-smouldering Four Courts, the site of their defiant stand mere hours before.
After pausing to gaze with morbid fascination at the gaping holes and crumbling upper storeys, the party hurried on. After spending the night in a friendly house, they travelling the next morning to Bray, first by tram and then on foot, hoping to link up with their compatriots. Instead they found only to find a smoking ruin in place of its barracks, its anti-Treaty garrison having set the building alight before withdrawing to Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where the rest of the IRA in South Dublin were mustering. O’Malley could not help but sourly wonder where they had been when the Four Courts needed them.
Regardless, he and his party commandeered a motor – carjacking being a common occurrence in Ireland by then – and drove to Blessington. Taking charge as the most senior officer present, O’Malley ordered for the village to be fortified as best it could, with barricades thrown up and mines scattered on the roads leading in. The inhabitants probably did not appreciate the intrusion, but no matter.
The next day, about seventy men from the Tipperary IRA arrived in a ragtag flotilla of char-a-bancs, Crossley tenders and motorcars. Combined, the Dubliners and the newcomers now numbered one hundred and thirty. Equipped with mines and explosives, as well as their firearms, they posed a formidable challenge. At last, O’Malley felt he could take the fight to the enemy.
By midnight, they were driving in a line towards the city centre, until the news that their colleagues had already decided to evacuate their positions in Sackville Street stopped them in their tracks. Crestfallen, the convoy returned to Blessington for the night.
Cutting a Swathe
At least the setback allowed O’Malley time to garner a better sense of the outside situation. Better informed than the Dubliners, the Tipperary men told him that Liam Lynch was currently in Limerick, having resumed the post of IRA Chief of Staff. But this update did not come with any direction on how to proceed, a common complaint among the Anti-Treatyites, many of whom were left floundering in the first few critical days of the war.
But not O’Malley. He had been urging for more aggressive moves from the start, frustrated by what he saw as Lynch’s passivity. Finally free to act, O’Malley decided to take his newfound war-band outside the city in search of easier targets. Once Munster was back under IRA control, he believed, they could then return to Dublin and settle the score.
Leaving some men to hold Blessington, O’Malley drove out with his mixed band of Tipperary émigrés and Dubliners. They approached Carlow, where an attack on the Free State-held town was considered, but that was put aside in favour of pressing on to Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in response to a call for aid.
They arrived at the town to the crack of gunfire as the Pro-Treatyites defended the castle from their IRA besiegers. O’Malley led his warband in blowing a hole in the outer yard gate of the castle with their explosives, followed by the similar demolition of the front entrance, at which point the occupants decided the time had come to wave the white flag. After extracting an oath from the prisoners to fight no more for the Free State, O’Malley allowed them to go free.
The next stop on this martial road trip was Ferns, which also fell without much further ado, followed by Borris in Co. Carlow and then Tullow. While contemplating the next moves to be launched against Carlow and Athy, O’Malley sent word to Limerick, asking Lynch for reinforcements to help attack the remaining Free State holdouts before the enemy could regroup.
“Tis in Vain…”
Had he talked with Séumas Robinson, O’Malley would have known how fruitless such a request would be. The Tipperary men who had arrived to help was only been a fraction of the numbers Robinson, as O/C of the Southern Tipperary Brigade, wanted to send. He had talked with Lynch on the train out of Dublin in the wake of the Four Courts attack, trying his best to persuade the Chief of Staff that the capital was the key to winning.
But Lynch would not hear of it. His orders had been for each of his officers to return to their localities and fight from there. It was in the countryside, Lynch believed, that the war would be decided. Although he did not yet know it, O’Malley was on his own.
Instead of reinforcements, Lynch sent a note on the 10th July, appointing O’Malley to Assistant Chief of Staff. His instructions were to proceed at once to Dublin and organise a staff for himself there, while simultaneously managing the IRA units in Leinster and Ulster. This was a tall order indeed, and O’Malley was momentarily flummoxed before pulling himself together.
“’Tis in vain for soldiers to complain,’ was what Wolfe Tone had written in his diary. It would be a much quoted mantra in the days to come.
That was the last he saw of his Tipperary contingent. Having little taste for the unfamiliarity of urban combat, they elected to return to their home county. O’Malley bore no ill will as he shook their hands and even advised them on the best routes to take. All he felt as he watched them drive off in a swirl of dust and a rumble of engines was a pang of loneliness.
Making a Start
Upon arriving back in his home city – by then under enemy occupation – O’Malley swiftly adjusted from warlord to underground operative. His immediate need was a base from which to build his command, and for this a studio room at the top of a Georgian house was found. Its owner was away on holiday, but when his wife warned of seeing suspicious men lurking outside, O’Malley took the hint to find another place.
He moved into number 36 on the prim and proper Ailesbury Road in leafy Donnybrook, from which to plan the next stage in the war. The home was owned by the sympathetic Ellen Humphreys, who had been hiding ‘on the run’ IRA leaders since the struggle against Britain.
“Surely the Staters would never think that we would have the hardihood to use such a well-known house again,” O’Malley reasoned and, for a time, he was correct.
In keeping with his penchant of hiding in plain sight, O’Malley began dressing as flamboyantly as he could, complete with brilliant ties and a hat festooned with peacock feathers, in order to deter anyone from thinking he was someone with anything to hide. As a finishing touch, he would carry a copy of that most mainstream of newspapers, TheIrish Times, during his daily jaunts as part of his cover as just another harmless citizen. He did, though, keep a revolver secreted on himself just in case, and practised his quick-draw each morning.
A quick learner in counter-surveillance, O’Malley studied the routes he would take for the day, taking care to differentiate. When the number of enemy patrols increased, including armoured cars and plainclothes teams, O’Malley switched from foot to use of a bicycle in the hope that its speed would grant him an increased chance at escape if recognised.
Despite the dangers, he preferred the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting with members of his staff or officers visiting from the country, believing that a written note would not have the same impact. Besides, he did not know many of the men he was supposed to be managing. He might have heard their names or met them briefly, but with no real notion as to their capabilities. Communications with areas outside of Dublin was haphazard, not to mention hazardous, with couriers having to risk hostile territory or friendly areas that had fallen into confusion thanks to the inertia of the months before.
With painful slowness and the steadfast assistance of his staff, O’Malley was able to piece together a picture of the situation he faced, until finally he had something he could report to Lynch about.
O’Malley did his Chief of Staff the courtesy of the unvarnished truth, in that the odds in Dublin were very much not in their favour. Writing to Lynch on the 28th July, he told of how in the city:
Enemy very active and in some cases whole coys [companies] have been picked up. This cannot be prevented, as the men must go to their daily work and there are not sufficient funds on hand to even maintain a strong column.
“We will carry on here as best we can,” O’Malley assured him, “but I am afraid we cannot bring the war home to them very effectively in Dublin.”
At least a flying column had been started, he said, with some operations already under its belt, although O’Malley admitted that he could provide no specifics as he had yet to receive any reports.
Constant enemy sweeps through the city and the arrest of some of his top officers had stifled the rest of the attempted resurgence, moving O’Malley to ask for permission to carry out something ambitious, such as seizing a block of buildings for a day or two before melting away. O’Malley was honest about the slim odds of a successful retreat but surely anything was better than waiting to be picked off?
Showing that he was unafraid to think big, even while in dire straits, O’Malley added that he was arranging for the capture of some leading bigwigs in the Free State. Holding them would present a difficulty, however, and he reached out to Lynch for help: “Could you arrange to look after them if we do not take them?”
If O’Malley was choleric, then Lynch was phlegmatic. The Chief of Staff’s main concern in his letter of reply, written from Co. Cork on the 2nd August, was the safety of his subordinate:
In view of the great activity of the enemy, you and other prominent officers here should take the greatest precautions. I would like to be able to rely on your safety to direct command. Keep people from seeing you – send deputies to interview those who must be seen, and direct things by dispatch.
Similarly, Lynch warned against grand gestures which could only result in the irreplaceable loss of what few men and scant equipment they could still muster. As for any prisoners taken, O’Malley would have to keep them where he was, for the situation in the country was too unsettled to be considered secure.
Instead, O’Malley was to focus on sabotaging wires and telegraph poles in order to better isolate enemy posts from each other. As Lynch explained: “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics.”
The next day, a matter of pressing concern had occurred to the Chief of Staff:
Owing to the abuse of the Tricolour by Free Staters during the present hostilities, it has been decided that the Republican flag, when used by us, will bear the letters ‘I.R.’
There is no indication of any IRA unit effecting such a change. There were presumably more important things to worry about, such as survival.
Another problem worthy of Lynch’s micromanaging was the hostility of the press. “Enemy stuff is very vile and shows the steps they are driven to,” he complained. For a man usually impervious to the opinions of others, he could be quite thin-skinned.
‘We Are in Earnest’
His solution was for O’Malley to murder the editors of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, the two largest newspapers in the country. O’Malley did not go so far as to refuse but, believing that there were worthier targets, he made no effort to implement these particular orders. He pressed for the Cabinet members of the Provisional Government to be targeted instead, but Lynch vetoed that approach on the grounds that the pro-Treaty military posed a more immediate danger.
Hoping to counterbalance enemy propaganda, O’Malley sent a letter to the Irish Independent, on the 19th August, defending the IRA from its media portrayal as made up of “blackguards, brigands, freebooters or ruffians”, and stressing the willingness of the Anti-Treatyites to fight without pay or material gain.
According to O’Malley, only the cause mattered to him and his compatriots: “The Republicans who are engaged in this war are fighting in a just and holy cause – namely, the defence of the Republic to which they have sworn to be faithful.”
Unfortunately, the pent-up frustrations spilled out onto the page of his righteously worded polemic, overwhelming any attempts to sound reasonable. “No vituperation is going to defeat this cause,” O’Malley said, adding petulantly: “The sooner you realise that the better.”
Lynch also pondered the ways in which the republican message could reach a wider audience. “If our activities and operations only could get fair publishing we would get ahead by leaps and bounds,” he mused on the 30th August. At least reports indicated that civilian attitudes were improving towards the IRA and the republican cause in general, which Lynch attributed to the determination on display: “They realise now we are in earnest and mean to fight.”
Still, public opinion “must be nursed a bit”, though Lynch fell short at explaining precisely how. The only suggestion he made on how to garner popular support was to send Count George Plunkett, the father of the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett, to Rome to protest to the Pope at the denunciations from the pulpits by the bishops and priests in Ireland.
Plunkett had previously been dispatched to the Vatican six years ago, just before the Easter Rising, to ensure that the then-Pope Benedict XV did not condemn the rebellion, so the Count made an inspired choice of papal emissary. The idea chimed in with Lynch’s top-down style of management, with the assumption that if one tier of a hostile hierarchy could be neutralised, then the lower ranks would obligingly fall into line.
The war in Dublin had improved little when O’Malley wrote back to his Chief of Staff on the 6th August. He tried to sound cautiously hopeful but came across more as fatalistic: “I have hopes, that is about all: one has to be patient here but certainly the circumstances are most peculiar and it is very difficult to counteract enemy espionage.”
His intelligence officers were hamstrung by being already known to the enemy – yet another unfortunate consequence of fighting former comrades – which made it hard to operate undetected. O’Malley cited one case of information failure when the Beggar’s Bush Barracks was undermanned with only forty Free Staters inside. The news was not forwarded to him until a day and a half later when the opportunity to strike had already passed.
Furthermore, “their propaganda is very insidious and ours is hopeless.”
His mood had not improved much by the time he wrote again: “There is not much to report on at present,” since he was still waiting for the report on the IRA attempt to isolate Dublin three nights ago on the 5th August. O’Malley would not receive this overdue report until the end of the month, by which time he would have been all too aware of the scale of the disaster and the crippling losses suffered by the Dublin IRA.
Fifty-eight men had been captured out of the hundred and forty-six involved, including their commanding officer. They had set out to demolish five canal or railway bridges connecting the city to the surrounding countryside, only to be intercepted and overwhelmed by the enemy. The armoured vehicles and massed machine-gun fire by the National Army were an advantage that the Anti-Treatyites could not hope to resist in a straight fight.
O’Malley’s hopes remained but not even he, it seemed, could take them seriously. In discussing the IRA in South County Dublin: “This area has not gone into working order as yet but I have ‘hopes’ – the usual ones.”
Lynch was of little help in advising on the situation, unsurprisingly so given how he lacked a realistic appraisal of his own. The surprise landings by the National Army in early August along the Cork and Kerry coastlines had thrown the IRA units stationed there into disarray, as Lynch admitted to O’Malley on the 18th August, rendering it impossible for them to focus on any one particular threat.
Yet he announced himself as “thoroughly satisfied with the situation now.” The guerrilla war he had always wanted was about to restart in Cork and Kerry, and Lynch had no doubt that “extensive operations will begin immediately” there. His main concern was with the “lying press propaganda” and the impact that may have on morale, as if the numerous setbacks were merely a case of adverse publicity.
On the 4th September, Lynch again cautioned O’Malley against anything too risky. There was to be no “big operations which only result in failure” – a cutting reference to the botched attempt to demolish the Dublin bridges a month ago.
Despite such failures and Lynch’s admonitions, O’Malley continued to chafe at his leash. Five days after receiving his Chief of Staff’s counsel against oversized operations, O’Malley complained to Liam Deasy, O/C of the First Southern Division, that “we are not going to win this war on purely guerrilla tactics as we did on the last war.”
Taking an enemy post, even a small one, would have a far greater impact than their current pin-prick approach, O’Malley believed.
Dublin remained key since there was not much point making the country ungovernable if the Pro-Treatyites continued to hold the capital. “If we could by means of better armament bring the war home to the Staters in the Capital,” he ruminated to Deasy, “it would have an immense effect on the people here and on the people in surrounding Counties.”
It was significant that O’Malley was telling this to someone other than Lynch. Also notable was how O’Malley was not expecting things to change anytime soon. The Chief of Staff was not one to change his mind once it was made up, and the rest of the Anti-Treatyites would just have to learn to live with that fact.
A numbness was seeping into O’Malley’s reports. In response to Lynch’s condolences on the death in action of his brother, he confessed that “to tell the truth I did not feel his loss much as I did not know him very well.” Still, his younger sibling had been “a good kid and died game.”
Speculations and Futility
Not everyone was as committed as Lynch or as resigned as O’Malley, with some on both sides wondering if there were not alternatives to the squalor and violence around them. Some of these imaginings centred on Michael Collins, whose death on the 22nd August 1922 was a turning point in more ways than one.
Lynch may have hailed it as the beginning of the end, the glimmer of victory at the end of a dark tunnel, but there were others who wistfully considered what might have been. Upon learning of the ambush planned on Collins at Béal na Bláth, Éamon de Valera was heard remarking that it would be a great pity if his adversary was killed as he would only be succeeded by inferior men.
Dan Breen went further. Though prepared to fiercely resist the Free State, along with the rest of the Tipperary IRA, Breen was open-minded enough to lend his services to the cause of peace if the opportunity arose, at least according to himself:
Michael Collins himself appeared to be on the point of attempting to seek a settlement shortly before his death. It has been said that he had announced (privately) his intention of getting in touch with de Valera in an effort to put an end to the conflict.
He did, undoubtedly, get in touch with Dan Breen, who received a message through an intermediary that Collins wanted to meet him. Breen discussed the message with General Liam Lynch and, with his knowledge and approval, set out for Cork to meet Collins.
Unfortunately, the projected meeting never took place…What would have been the outcome of the projected meeting between Breen and Collins is something on which we can only speculate, and such speculation would now be futile.
Overlooking Breen’s irritating tendency to refer to himself in the third person, there are certain hurdles to accepting this account at face value.
For one, while Lynch was certainly aware of the movement towards dialogue emanating from Cork, which he guessed to be a result of Collins’ presence there, he made his disinterest plain to O’Malley: “There can be no negotiations except on the basis of the recognition of the Republic” – which did not leave much room for discussion. The man who Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy believed could act as a moderating influence had turned out to be someone quite different.
Which leaves the last known interaction between Collins and Lynch as a brief correspondence in the press. It was an exchange that only publicly accentuated just how wide the gulf was between the two sides.
At least the People’s Rights Association of Cork had tried. Attempting to act as an honest broker, this group of concerned citizens forwarded to Collins on the 1st August a letter of reply to their own suggestion of peace it had received from Lynch.
“I wish to inform you that when the Provisional Government cease their attack on us, defensive actions on our part can cease,” Lynch had written. “If the Second Dáil, which is the Government of the Republic, or any other elected Assembly, carry on such Government, I see no difficulty as to the allegiance of the Army.”
In an accompanying letter to Lynch’s, the Association asked Collins if he was willing to arrange a ceasefire on the basis suggested by Lynch. The Commander-in-Chief of the National Army did not mince words in his published reply:
The Government has made it fully clear that its desire is to secure obedience to proper authority. When an expression of such obedience comes from irregular leaders I take it there will no longer be any necessity for armed conflict.
“The time for face-saving is passed,” Collins continued, with an air of finality:
Irregular leaders, political and military, got an opportunity of doing this over a period of seven or eight months. The issue now is very clear. The choice is definitely between the return of the British and the irregulars sending in their arms to the People’s Government, to be held in trust for the people.
‘Obedience to proper authority’, ‘sending in their arms’, ‘to be held in trust’ – less likely possibilities for the likes of Lynch and O’Malley could scarcely have been imagined.
“These scarcely need or deserve comment – we are sick of this sort of trash,” Lynch wrote in disgust at the latest ‘peace offers’ that amounted to nothing more than a demand by the enemy for an unconditional surrender.
A Reluctant Foe
Lynch was more concerned about the impact rumours of such talks might have on morale. There was a palpable sigh of exasperation in a letter of his to O’Malley on the 7th September:
So many private and unauthorised individuals are engaged in endeavouring to bring about peace in various terms, and are putting forward so many different proposals that it is necessary to inform all these individuals that the only body on our side competent to consider any proposals or terms submitted to us, or to put forward terms on which Peace may be concluded is the whole Army Executive.
Lynch was nothing if not protective of his prerogatives.
Collins appeared equally determined to resolve the war on his own terms. When Michael Brennan, who had led the Pro-Treatyites to victory in Limerick, talked with his Commander-in-Chief during the latter’s Munster tour, he came away with the distinct impression that Collins was not on a mission of peace.
“At the same time he was very attached to Cork men like Lynch and Deasy and didn’t want to fight them,” Brennan added.
Which may have been true. But, four months into the Civil War, it was clear that, however little Collins wanted to fight his former friends, he was prepared to do just that. With both him and Lynch convinced they were in the right and that the future of their country hung in the balance, neither leader was prepared to back down, ensuring that this was to be a struggle to the death – for the pair of them.
The Master or the Servant
The mentioning of the Second Dáil – the body elected in the 1921 election, before the Treaty was signed and the divisions began – and of elected assemblies in general, was a rare one by Lynch, who thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost. Politics and politicians were things best seen and not heard.
Even dabbling in such distractions could be a cause for suspicion. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch said of the left-leaning Liam Mellows.
But Lynch did not refer to the Dáil for its own sake but as part of a strategy to undermine the fledgling enemy state. The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government had come to that exact conclusion when, alongside Collins’ reply to People’s Rights Association of Cork, it delivered a scathing one of its own in regards to Lynch:
He demands in addition that the Dáil elected in June  should abrogate its sovereignty, ignore the mandate it received and base its policy entirely on the lines dictated by Mr Lynch and his associates in utter disregard of the will of the Irish people: that the army should be the master and not the servant of the people, and that the Government created by the people should be allowed to function only in so far as it obeys the orders of that army.
The desire to ignore the decision given by the Irish people in the June elections accounts for the stress laid upon a further meeting of the Second Dáil.
Which, based on Lynch’s own writings, was an accurate enough assessment of his intentions.
Pacts and Power
The Second Dáil had been the body of public representatives elected in the 1921 July general election. To head off the worsening Treaty divisions, a ‘Pact’ had been agreed by both sides, where the candidates from both factions would stand in the 1922 June election without reference to their Treaty positions.
This would allow, it was hoped, for the united front that had served everyone so well before to be preserved. That Collins had allowed other parties such as Labour and the Farmers Party, both of whom accepted the Treaty, to contest the election was seen by many in the anti-Treaty camp as a “flagrant violation” of the agreement, to quote Dan Breen, who himself had stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate.
It became an article of faith among the Anti-Treatyites that because it was the other side who had broken the Pact, everything that resulted was accordingly their fault. O’Malley put it succinctly in another letter to a newspaper, this time the Freeman’s Journal:
The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation but the wiseacres again, agreed to the Pact when they are weak, broke it when they thought they were strong, and achieved only a catastrophe.
Lynch was of like mind on this. When O’Malley reported back on a meeting with Monsignor John O’Hagan, the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, on the priest’s suggestion of a ‘Coalition Government’ – i.e. one with both Anti and Pro-Treatyites serving together – he was sceptical, believing that military success was just around the corner and which would render the need for any such compromise moot.
But Lynch, more calculating, signalled his consent: “I would consider it alright, as this would bring us to the position which the P.G. dishonoured, i.e. the De Valera-Collins Pact.” Besides, he cannily noted, belying the usual assessment of him as a political naïf, such an arrangement would give them another angle from which to attack the hated Treaty. They only had to win the one time, Lynch explained, for if the “Treaty is once shelved it is shelved forever.”
Otherwise, Lynch spent very little time pondering the intricacies and possibilities of democracy. A question arose at the start of September when Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, urged his Chief of Staff to do something about de Valera.
The former President of the Republic had been noticeably glum in the past month. He had even, according to Moloney, “contemplated taking public action which would ruin us.” Moloney admitted that the military situation had then been less than ideal but now that the wheel had turned, de Valera must be told, in no uncertain terms, to do nothing to embarrass them.
Also needing attention was the question of whether the anti-Treaty TDs elected in the 1922 election should attend the Third Dáil when it finally opened. If not, should their pro-Treaty counterparts be prevented from doing so as well? Not that it mattered too much, in Moloney’s view, since the Third Dáil in itself was an irrelevance.
“Since the ‘Panel Agreement’ was broken, the second Dáil is the only Government of the Republic,” Moloney said – a viewpoint which conveniently meant that there was no government at all, and certainly not one the IRA need kowtow to.
Lynch was to display no strong feelings either way. For all his talk about the Second Dáil as the Government of the Republic or whatnot, he could “see no useful purpose being served at the moment by trying to get the 2nd Dáil together,” as he told O’Malley.
Neither did Lynch see much use in politicians of any ilk, even ones on the same side. “I am not over anxious as to co-operation of Republican Party. Of course they are doing their best,” Lynch added with a touch of condescension. He did not believe that the IRA and their allied politicians had enough in common to be considered republican equals: “The Army has its mind made up to total separation from England; I do not think that can be said of Party.”
Not that Lynch was against the idea of cooperation per se. While he warned O’Malley against “political people” having any control over military propaganda, the IRA could still “accept all the assistance from them which they are prepared to give”, in what Lynch probably considered a generous concession on his part.
Lynch planned to hold a meeting of the IRA Executive as soon as he reached the town of Tipperary. During this, he hoped to form an Army Council, consisting of five or six nominees, which would focus on the military and civil concerns that arose. One such member, Lynch suggested, could be “responsible for availing of the many services which Republican Party can render us.”
Who would be serving who in such an arrangement was left in no doubt. In the meantime, Lynch offered his opinion – not his order, he stressed – that anti-Treaty TDs should not attend the Dáil. It was a weak response, verging on indifferent, that showed just how little importance he placed on the matter.
A Life In Hiding
Confined to his administrative duties in 36 Ailesbury Road, O’Malley did his best to make do. At least he had regular visitors in the form of Seán Dowling, the Director of Operations, and his young assistant, Todd Andrews, both of whom would help with the dispatches for the day.
In the evenings they would escape the paperwork for half an hour of tennis. Dowling had initially objected on the grounds of it being too risky, exposed as they would be in the back garden but, when O’Malley insisted, even the cautious Dowling began to enjoy himself as they played singles or doubles with the addition of Sheila Humphreys, the 23-year old daughter of the family. O’Malley kept a ball in his pocket in case enemy soldiers were sighted, in which case he would escape out of sight by hitting the ball into a neighbouring garden and then climbing over the fence to ‘retrieve’ it until the danger had passed.
Conversation was another pastime with his guests, whether gossiping about the people involved on either side, many of whom were personal acquaintances of his, or discussions on more cerebral topics such as the philosophy of Stoicism. It was a school of thought that had served him well during the War of Independence. As O’Malley recounted those days, Andrews “seemed to detect a note of pride in his accounts of his ability to endure torture and pain. It seemed as if he actually enjoyed his experiences in such situations.”
When Andrews called in one day, he found the normally unflappable O’Malley almost out of his mind with cabin fever. Desperate to get out of the house, he invited Andrews to join him on a trip for a haircut. Not wanting to be seen as cowardly, Andrews reluctantly agreed.
The pair caught a tram to Westmoreland Street, where there was the best barber in town, at least in O’Malley’s opinion. “While we waited our turn my nerves were stretched to breaking point,” remembered Andrews. To his horror, O’Malley was in no hurry to return to his fishbowl life in Ailesbury Road, indulging in not only a haircut but a singe and a shampoo. Mercifully for Andrews, he did go as far as a face massage but, on the way out, O’Malley paused to purchase two large cigars, one of which he handed to his friend.
“It would be difficult to describe a better method of calling attention to ourselves than by smoking large cigars on a sidewalk in the heart of the city,” Andrews bemoaned. That O’Malley was wearing one of his ostentatious hats – a “large off-white woollen cap” – did nothing to soothe his companion. By the time Andrews got away and returned home, he was in a state akin to shock.
Thinking back on his time with O’Malley, he considered the other man to be a victim of circumstances, condemned as he was to a tedious desk job:
…dispensing circulars to what at that time were mainly non-existent units of the IRA and when they existed, rarely receiving a reply. He would have achieved true fulfilment in leading a flying column or commando unit.
O’Malley would not have disagreed. He was uncomfortably aware of the incongruity of his situation, partaking in tennis and tea in suburbia, enjoying regular meals, while out in the hills and streets, his brothers-in-arms were struggling merely to survive. It was an all-too-common disparity, O’Malley knew, for many of his fellow officers were content to sit back as bureaucrats when they should have been out in the field, leading by example.
O’Malley would eventually get his chance to do just.
It was still dark at half seven in the morning of the 4th November when O’Malley was awoken by a knock on his bedroom door by Sheila to let him know that their house was surrounded.
After assuring her that he was alright, O’Malley remained in his room, placing his revolver on his dressing-table where he had also left a safety razor and a hand-grenade. He dressed in the darkness as quickly he could, pulling his trousers and coat over his pyjamas. Struggling to keep his breathing steady, he heard voices, then footsteps moving upstairs and closer.
There was the distant tapping of rifle-ends against the walls as the enemy searched for concealed rooms, like the one at the end of the corridor where O’Malley was waiting. The door to his bedroom had been changed to a wooden clothespress, which could be swung open by means of a spring connected to a wire to pull. This cunning device had been constructed during the War of Independence by a man who – as O’Malley was uncomfortably aware of – had joined the pro-Treaty side.
A rifle-butt knocked on the other side of the dummy clothespress, emitting a hollow sound that distinctly told of a room beyond. More rifles were struck against the wood, splintering it bit by bit. O’Mally was keenly tempted to fire his revolver through the door before dashing out in a blaze of glory but the fear of hitting any of the Humphrey family stayed his hand.
It was not until the partition finally swung open with a heavy crash that O’Malley gave in, firing twice at the first intruder and being rewarded with a cry of pain. Free Staters scrambled to escape as he emerged from his bolthole, shooting again, this time at a motion behind another door in the corridor, hitting Áine O’Rahilly, the sister of Ellen Humphreys, who was staying with them, in the chin.
Ellen appeared to help her sibling back into her room, gallantly assuring O’Malley not to worry. Thoroughly shaken, O’Malley forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. The sound of breaking windows told of how the enemy outside were firing on the house from all directions.
With the grenade in hand, O’Malley stepped downstairs to where he could hear the babble of voices, pulled the pin out and lobbed it at the Free Staters crowding the hall. The men stampeded for the door until the hall was empty save for the unexploded grenade, its cap belatedly revealed as defective, lying in the centre of the floor.
Making the decision to take the fight outdoors to spare his hosts any further danger, O’Malley left through the back and ran around the house, revolver in hand, opening fire at the first green coats he saw. A bullet struck him in the back, and then another to the shoulder, felling him to the previously manicured, now-torn lawn.
He managed to squeeze off more shots but his benumbed hand was only slowly responding to his mental commands. Again, he was hit from behind, but he struggled to his knees, and then on trembling legs. A fourth bullet found him, once more in the back, and he crumbled against the wall of the house.
O’Malley emerged from a red haze to find himself again inside the house, Ellen having managed to drag him there. Lying on his brutalised back, lacking the strength to turn over, he watched dimly as a circle of uniforms surrounded him.
AILESBURY ROAD FIGHT read the Irish Times headline, two days later on the 6th November:
One soldier of the national Army was killed, a prominent leader of the Republicans was seriously wounded when national troops sent to search 36 Ailesbury road.
“In many respects the affair was worthy of the cinema,” noted the article. The Republican leader in question had been driven away under heavy escort in a military ambulance, his condition being described as critical. The write-up he received in the newspaper, whose editor he had held off from assassinating, might at least have given him some satisfaction:
Ernest O’Malley was in charge of the Four Courts during the bombardment, and arranged its surrender. He afterwards escaped while in custody in Jameson’s distillery. He has displayed much activity throughout the country.
Despite the severity of his wounds, O’Malley would live, albeit as a prisoner for the duration of the war. His aforementioned activity had come to an end. Lynch took the loss of his right-hand man phlegmatically. As he promoted Moloney to fill O’Malley’s place in the IRA hierarchy, Lynch said that while the arrest was a serious loss, “he could have been taken at a worse time; it has led to no disorganisation.”
Furthermore, the “splendid fight” of O’Malley’s would serve as a stirring example to the others. If nothing else, Lynch could be relied upon to see any glass as half-full.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p.75
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“The epidemic of raids 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Common Ground, Common Enemy
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Negotiations for Army unification must stop.
Whatever necessary action to maintain the Republic would be taken.
No offensive will be taken against Free State forces.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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, and 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.
 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
 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
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)
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.
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.
Preparing for the Next Round
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.”
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.
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.
Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
(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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
That it should be maintained as the Army of the Irish Republic, under an Executive appointed by the convention.
That the Army shall be under the supreme control of such Executive, which shall draft a constitution for submission to a subsequent convention.
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.
Influence and Respect
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 to be counted on.
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.
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.