Life was not easy for Richard Mulcahy. As Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he had endured months as a fugitive from the British authorities, hunted amidst the streets of Dublin and at grave peril to his wellbeing. With the Truce in July 1921 drawing the war to a pause, Mulcahy could have expected some peace of his own. Instead, no sooner had one conflict ended did another intensify, except this was with someone he should have called a comrade: Cathal Brugha, the iron-willed, not to say highly-strung, Minister for Defence in the underground government that they both belonged to.
A shared cause did nothing to assuage tensions between the two leaders, as the latest flashpoint in their simmering row erupted over typewriters, of all things: the owner of a company specialising in their manufacture had had a number stolen from his Dublin office by the IRA. He fired his secretary in the belief that she had been the inside woman for the robbery, and was consequently warned to leave the country.
It was a half-silly, half-squalid affair but, with peace established, the exiled businessman applied for permission to return home. Mulcahy forwarded the request to Michael Collins, unwittingly turning a simple matter into a complicated one when Brugha, for reasons of his own, decided that Collins had erred in his assignment, and contacted Mulcahy to that effect, much to the other man’s displeasure.
“I consider the tone of your letter…is very unfortunate,” Mulcahy wrote back icily, which only enraged Brugha further in his own reply:
Before you are very much older, my friend, I shall show you that I have…little intention of taking dictation from you as to how I should reprove inefficiency or negligence on the part of yourself or the D/I [Director of Intelligence, Collins].
Mulcahy proceeded passively-aggressively by refusing to attend further staff sessions, earning his suspension by Brugha. Mulcahy was thenceforth to surrender all documents, books and other material connected to his duties. Luckily, a higher authority stepped in before things escalated any further: Éamon de Valera stood by as Brugha tearfully apologised, or at least close enough for Mulcahy to accept.
It was all rather undignified. De Valera had played peacemaker, but he also contributed his own share of drama. “Ye may mutiny if ye like, but Ireland will give me another army,” he hotly proclaimed in a gathering of the GHQ Staff when truculence towards his proposed reforms wore down his last nerve.
The Irish Plenipotentiaries had just departed for talks in London in October 1921 and, since a failure to strike a deal would probably result in renewed war, it was important to have the IRA so prepared; in de Valera’s view, this meant ensuring that the military relationship with the civilian government, which he headed, was a clearly defined subordinate one. Considering how they had been bearing the brunt of the Anglo-Irish struggle, Mulcahy and his colleagues took this implied lack of faith in their loyalty rather personally, as they did de Valera’s outburst.
“I didn’t think that there was a man in Ireland that would speak like that [to Mulcahy]”, said a white-faced Seán Russell after the contentious meeting.
Given the esteem Mulcahy was held in revolutionary circles, it came as a surprise, even a shock, when he threw in his support for the Treaty. “Dick wouldn’t do such a thing,” Mary MacSwiney insisted when she first heard, while Pax Ó Faoláin could not comprehend “how a great Irish-Irelander like Richard Mulcahy could accept a treaty that gave away six of our counties and that allowed the exercise of only limited sovereignty over the other twenty-six.”
While others were at a loss to understand, de Valera knew where to point the finger – the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and its lobbying behind the scenes:
MC [Michael Collins] had got the IRB machine working. The Dail members of the IRB were told that acceptance of the Treaty would be the quickest way to the Republic and a lot of other stuff which time alone will explode.
Or to put it more succinctly: “Curse secret societies.”
Two themes dominated Mulcahy’s career as a soldier, at least how historian Pádraig Ó Caoimh presents it: fraught relationships with civic authorities and his IRB membership, both of which continued in the Free State, to Mulcahy’s ultimate detriment.
He had only himself to blame. When allegations surfaced of an IRB presence in the upper echelons of the Free State military in April 1923, Mulcahy not only confirmed but defended this fact, praising the Brotherhood as:
…a machine that, in the first place, has pulled the country through the very difficult situation it got into, and which, in the second place, will be the home for the development of all those particular characteristics which will go to make an Irish character we may be proud of.
A ‘machine’ – both de Valera and Mulcahy referred to the Brotherhood as such but, while the former said it as an accusation, to the latter that meant opportunities to be wrought. After all, what was the spirit of the IRB but that of Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and other names so revered?
With that in mind, the IRB Constitution was rewritten to accommodate initiates within the Free State forces. While de Valera had identified Collins as the prime mover behind the fraternity, now it was Mulcahy taking the lead, meeting with his fellow government minister, Kevin O’Higgins, on how best to frame the new order. Going by the minutes of their conversation, O’Higgins, while not opposed per se to the IRB, had reservations about its long-term effects, something Mulcahy refused to even considering as a possibility:
O’Higgins: Urged the very great danger of persons being put into pivotal positions, purely because of belonging to certain organisations; that it would lead to serious abuses, and serious weaknesses.
Mulcahy: That it would never happen and that it was absurd to think that it ever would.
O’Higgins: Put it up that certain pivotal people at the present moment were only there because they were of the Organisation (IRB).
Mulcahy: Who else could be in their places?
O’Higgins had other concerns. If the IRB looked poised to be a separate power in the Free State, then the Army already was a law unto itself, particularly in Kerry, where the bitterness of civil war was starkly demonstrated in a string of ugly incidents. As the military authority, Paddy O’Daly, had the most to answer, yet Mulcahy defended him every step of the way.
“In the case of any Officer who has given distinguished service of lasting benefit to his Country,” Mulcahy replied when questioned, “I was not prepared lightly, and on no evidence, to place him in the degrading position of answering to a low charge.”
Murdering POWs by tying them to landmines or dragging women out of their homes for a lashing was apparently what amounted to a ‘low charge’ in Mulcahy’s esteem. O’Daly had been one of his few reliable soldiers during the Civil War, and Mulcahy was clearly not one to forget loyal service, but public priorities had changed by the time of the Army Inquiry in March 1923, and his decision to stand by his subordinates was now seen as embarrassingly indulgent, if not alarmingly immoral.
Perhaps if Mulcahy had had a more congenial relationship with his civilian colleagues, he might have emerged from the inquiry with his standing intact. But he had grown too used to marching to the beat of his own drum without a thought for the rest of the band.
Earlier, in the midst of the Civil War in September 1922, he had taken the liberty of covertly meeting with de Valera in the hope of a peaceful solution. A worthy effort, perhaps, if unsuccessful, but that liberty was not his to take. The Cabinet had already ruled that anything short of unconditional surrender on the part of the Anti-Treatyites was unacceptable. Mulcahy had in effect gone behind their collective backs, leading to an excruciatingly awkward session when he confessed, as Ernest Blythe described:
When he had finished there was a dead silence for what seemed like minutes. All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation. In view of the state of affairs generally, and in view of the way in which the Government was cut off from the Army, none of us felt that we could make that demand.
When the silence had lasted so long that the Cabinet meeting seemed on the point of becoming rather like a Quaker prayer meeting, Mr. Cosgrave said. “That’s all,” got up and left his chair, and all of us left the room without a single comment on General Mulcahy’s disclosure.
Mulcahy at least kept his rank – for the moment. Irony abounded: he had risked all in parlaying with an enemy he had had little time for even when allies. Where de Valera failed in bringing the headstrong general to heel, the Army Inquiry succeeded with a housecleaning of the military high command. Mulcahy was among those forced to resign, a humiliating slap in the face for a man who had just succeeded in two back-to-back wars.
Retracing such a journey has clearly been a labour of love for Ó Caoimh, whose bibliography is an exhaustive list of archival memorandum, personal reminisces and subsequent historiography, allowing us an unrivalled peak into Mulcahy’s thoughts. Note ‘thoughts’, not ‘feelings’, which are scant: the subject might as well be carved from a block of wood for all the emotion on display, save for the occasional slip of annoyance at whichever politico was trying to boss him around.
“Socially distant, politically complex and militarily circumspect” is how Mulcahy, while in his mid-thirties, is summed up. One senses this is a biography that introverted man would have approved of: long on the public, short on personal, with details of his private life reserved for the footnotes. State-building requires focus, after all, and Ó Caoimh’s work goes a long way in reminding us of the central role Mulcahy played in the Irish one’s formative years. Readers beware, however, of the sickly stink of suspicion wafting from almost every page.
Something was up – Lieutenant Laurence Nugent knew that at least. After all, his superior officer, Captain T.J. Cullen, had received word, in the lead-up to the Easter Week of 1916, to ready their men in preparation for a freight of rifles that was said to be on its way to Ireland.
Nugent and Cullen were in something of an odd position. When the Irish Volunteers split almost two years previously, in September 1914, both had elected to go with the majority and form the National Volunteers. But, though training continued as before, the old spark was lost. Members began dropping out of the ranks, never to return.
When Éamonn Ceannt addressed a Dublin parade of the National Volunteers in August 1915 on behalf of the rival Irish Volunteers, both Cullen and Nugent were receptive to a possible change to their stupefying pace. There was the chance of a shipment of guns and ammunition into the country, Ceannt confided, too large for his organisation to handle alone. Would the National Volunteers be interested in taking part in any action – and probably soon – for the freedom of Ireland?
Every man present agreed and, from then on, the National Volunteers in Dublin could train with a goal in mind. But, by the end of the week before that of Easter 1916, news filtered down that the promised rifles were not coming after all. Orders for an uprising were cancelled, and that appeared to be that.
Nugent was on his way to work on Easter Tuesday when he chanced upon a group of women and children watching from the top of a street leading to St Stephen’s Green, where a man – so Nugent was told – lay dead inside the park railings. Nugent pressed forward to see for himself and was ordered back by the British soldiers who were occupying the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the park. Bullets were whining through the air, and Nugent tried warning the onlookers about the danger, but they paid him no attention, seeming more curious than concerned about the battle unfolding in their city.
Nugent seems to have been equally blasé in his own way, for he continued on to his shop at 9 Lower Baggot Street. When Captain Cullen came in with another man who was – incongruously enough – carrying half a ham and some mutton, Nugent sent them upstairs, out of sight from his customers, for he recognised Cullen’s companion as Rory O’Connor, a leading figure in the Irish Volunteers.
“That was a close shave,” said Cullen, taking off O’Connor’s hat. As Nugent examined the hat, he found it had been holed through on either side. Looking at its owner, he saw a burnt break in O’Connor’s thick black hair, made by, say, a passing bullet.
Roderic Ignatius Patrick O’Connor
In the years to come, O’Connor was to leave a striking impression on many who had known him. “He was a smallish, very dark man, dark skin, blue jaws,” remembered Geraldine Dillon (née Plunkett), “he had to shave twice a day and had such a deep voice that it seemed to slow his speech, yet he had great charm.” This charisma worked itself on her brothers, George and Jack, both of whom followed him unquestioningly.
Another Plunkett sibling on close terms with O’Connor was Joseph. For someone like O’Connor, looking to strike a blow for Irish freedom, this connection meant a lot, for Joseph Plunkett sat on the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The family property at Larkfield, Co. Dublin, became the base for the growing number of young Irishmen united in their desire to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
As part of this, O’Connor worked with George and Jack on their brother’s staff, along with Michael Collins – another rising star in the revolutionary underground – and Tommy Dillon, Geraldine’s future husband. O’Connor was put in charge of engineering, a role which suited his talents.
He had worked on the engineering staff of the then Midland Great Western Railway in Ireland, before emigrating to Canada in 1910. There, he had been employed in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad, according to the estimations of his brother, Norbert.
In 1915, O’Connor returned to Ireland. His closeness to the Plunketts was such that Norbert believed he had come back “at the request of Joseph Plunkett.”
Having said that, there is not much to indicate that O’Connor even knew Joseph Plunkett at that stage. Also, his motive for returning seems to have been not for any brewing rebellion but instead to fight for King and Country in the Great War – an odd desire for a budding Fenian. Inspiration came from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in order to secure favourable terms for Home Rule, though O’Connor did not intend to go quite as far as joining the British Army, preferring instead a different military that was on the same side. He told Dillon:
…that he was responding to Redmond’s call and that a Colonel…had promised to get him a comission [sic] in the Engineering Corp of the Canadian army. I told him to take his time and explained the situation to him. I brought him out to Larkfield and he soon gave up on the idea of joining the British forces.
O’Connor and Dillon had known each before as school chums at Clongowes Wood. They met again when Dillon came to study in Dublin in 1905, and O’Connor, recognising a kindred spirit, introduced him to the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a grassroots movement for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
Both joined the committee, as did Patrick J. Little, a future government minister, who accredited O’Connor with being one of the driving forces in a “remarkably clever and interesting” body of young men, consisting mostly of students and professionals, who wanted a voice in how their country should be run.
Young Ireland proved a touch too radical for the IPP grandees, one of whom, Joe Devlin, tried to persuade them, sometime in 1905 or 1906, to take a less strident approach. He failed, but the divergent opinions on board the committee proved too fractious and the group broke up in 1915, while O’Connor was still working in Canada.
Shortly after his homecoming, and diverted from his original idea of enlisting, O’Connor went into business with Dillon, setting up together the Larkfield Chemical Company, the intent being to produce aspirins. From the outset, they ran into difficulties with the authorities, against which they hired their old Young Ireland colleague, Little, as a solicitor. As Little described:
We floated the company, in spite of a refusal to allow us to do so, under a regulation of D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act). On the legal advice of my brother, Edward, I found that D.O.R.A. did not prevail over an Act of Parliament and proceeded to float our company.
Complications continued when machinery purchased from Glasgow arrived defective. The offending suppliers were taken to court and the suit settled for £2,000.
In any case, O’Connor and Dillon, with the assistance of the Plunketts, on whose property in Larkfield they worked, had become more interested in fermenting rebellion than curing headaches, having learnt of the IRB plans for an armed uprising. At one war council, O’Connor said to those present: “Do you realise what this effort is going to cost in blood? But, if you decide on fighting, I am with you.”
At least, that is what he later told Nugent. It is unlikely, however, he would have been inducted into such a conspiracy if the others were not already certain of his commitment. Previous rebellions had been thwarted in no small part by their carelessness with information. This time, the Military Council would hide its secrets well – perhaps a little too much so.
The Castle Document
Among O’Connor’s responsibilities was the printing of the ‘Castle Document’ with the assistance of George Plunkett. The Military Council, including its de facto leader Tom Clarke, had met previously at Larkfield, in the bedroom of the sickly Joseph, to discuss the document, purportedly smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a sympathetic clerk, which detailed the authorities’ plans to move against the Irish Volunteers as well as a number of other suspect bodies in Ireland.
Its credibility would be a matter of controversy. Geraldine was sure it was genuine, but Colm Ó Lochlainn, its original printer before O’Connor and George took over, assumed it a forgery on account of it being in Joseph’s handwriting. Regardless of authenticity, printing the piece proved boring work. O’Connor and George sung together to get through the tedium, even resorting to God Save the King as well as the more expected fare such as The Croppy Boy and I Tread the Ground That Felons Tread. When halfway done, one of them knocked the ink over with an elbow and the work had to be started all over again.
More problems arose. When the finished product was sent out to the newspapers, none would accept it as real. Instead, O’Connor brought a copy to the New Ireland, a weekly newspaper with modest circulation, whose proprietor and editor was none other than Little. After acquiring it in February 1916, Little had assured O’Connor that he would publish anything if it served the cause of Ireland. He was as good as his word, though it was only when the ‘Castle Document’ was read out at the Dublin Corporation meeting on the 19th April 1916 that it finally achieved some proper publicity.
The intent behind it had been two-fold, as Geraldine explained: “Make the Castle hesitate to do the things they were accused of planning, and make the public realise what was planned whether there was a Rising or not.”
Last Minute Plans
‘Whether or not’ would become a pressing issue when, after months of preparation, the Irish Volunteers were confronted by the one thing the conspirators had failed to account for: dissension in their own ranks. Suspicious of the activities of the IRB, to which he was not affiliated, Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff, had abruptly countermanded the parade for Easter Sunday that was to provide cover for the Rising, effectively putting the insurrection on hold.
If the IRB had assumed MacNeill would be a compliant figurehead, then they gravely misjudged him. Faced with this unexpected setback, Geraldine assumed that the event would be postponed for a week, possibly longer, until the swirl of rumours obscuring everything had been cleared. She had her own investment in it – she and Dillon were due to be married on Easter Sunday in a double wedding with Joseph and his own fiancé, Grace Gifford.
Geraldine and Dillon visited Joseph on Saturday in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, where he had checked in the day before, his luggage carried by Michael Collins as his aide-de-camp. Using his suite as a temporary base of operations, Joseph met with a succession of people until he could spare an hour for his sister and brother-in-law-to-be.
Joseph’s instructions to Dillon were to go to the Imperial Hotel on the same street and wait for news. In the event of activity, Dillon was to take over the chemical factory in Larkfield and set to work alongside O’Connor in making munitions. That is, if anything happened – Joseph was as unsure on that point as anyone since MacNeill’s intervention had thrown everything and everyone into disarray.
Joseph had no time to get married, but Geraldine and Dillon still could. With the Rising due either Sunday or Monday, at least as far as Geraldine understood, she insisted the ceremony be on the earlier date – with the world about to be upturned, she knew she had to carpe diem. Besides, she had had enough of living with her harridan of a mother and grasped at any chance to escape the suffocating confines of her family life.
The wedding was held accordingly in Rathmines Church, attended by George and Jack, both in the green uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with O’Connor, in civilian clothes, acting as best man. His duties included the ejection, helped by the Plunkett brothers, of two police detectives who tried to intrude.
Afterwards, the newly-weds cycled to the Imperial Hotel as per instruction. O’Connor came with the news that MacNeill’s countermand had been published in the Sunday Independent, making it definite. As far as O’Connor could say, the Rising was definitely off for the rest of Sunday but Monday remained an open question. Still, the new Mr and Mrs Dillon should remain on the alert, at least from noon the next day.
If anything was to happen, O’Connor told them, it would be then.
The couple were seated by their open second-storey window, looking out on to Sackville Street when the big question was finally answered by the column of uniformed Irish Volunteers marching towards the General Post Office (GPO), where they halted. As the Imperial Hotel stood directly opposite the GPO, the couple had a front-row view of the men wheeling left and continuing into the post office. Geraldine caught sight of Joseph, with Collins beside him, and a number of the other leaders, such as Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada.
There was a bang and Geraldine saw someone being carried away on a stretcher. When O’Connor came by their room shortly afterwards, he explained that one of the Irish Volunteers had slipped when entering the GPO, setting off the bomb in his hand.
Other than that, the long-gestating Rising was unfolding smoothly enough. With the GPO established as their headquarters, Volunteers began bringing in supplies and smashing windows with rifle-butts to make room for barricades. Geraldine asked O’Connor to tell Joseph to let her help, but when he returned to the Hotel at 6 pm, the answer he brought back was ‘no’. The GPO was too crowded, O’Connor explained.
Instead, Joseph’s instructions were for her and Dillon to return to Larkfield with O’Connor and, if possible, manufacture some more explosives (Geraldine had already beheld the prowess of a Larkfield-made bomb when one was used to mangle an empty tramcar on Sackville Street for use in a barricade). To avoid British patrols on the way, it was agreed for O’Connor to take a different route to Geraldine and Dillon. He would try to reach his father’s residence in Monkstown, while the other two headed to Rathmines where the Plunketts owned another house, and the next day they would reconvene in Larkfield.
Night was falling and the street lights flickered on to guide the newly-weds as they cycled over O’Connell Bridge, encountering almost no one else along the way. The streets were devoid of people, whether civilians or military, and Geraldine could take satisfaction at least that the Rising, after all the effort and trouble to bring about, had taken everyone, the authorities especially, completely by surprise.
At Larkfield, the trio reunited as planned on Tuesday morning. O’Connor had first checked in at the GPO, and assured Geraldine and Dillon that Joseph was well. As the assigned chemical expert on the Plunkett staff, Dillon began making production plans as per Joseph’s orders, but O’Connor stopped him, saying that the situation had moved past that.
The Rising, it seemed, was not going as smoothly as hoped.
When Dillon wondered if it would be any use going to the GPO, O’Connor again demurred, repeating Joseph’s line that the building was packed enough as it was. For want of anything else to do, O’Connor decided he would take messages in and out of the GPO and other parts of the city, a risky endeavour considering the fighting that was about to be waged. It was while doing this that O’Connor, after narrowly avoiding a bullet to the head, met Cullen, who took him to Nugent’s shop in Baggot Street.
Something to Do
There, O’Connor did not mince words. “He told us the whole position and it was hopeless,” Nugent remembered.
As O’Connor explained, much of their ammunition had already been spent and the remainder would not last for more than a few days. Joseph Plunkett was confident that their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ would come to their rescue, having been to Germany beforehand and heard the promises of a military landing, but no one else in the GPO was putting much stock in this possibility.
O’Connor begged the two National Volunteers to do everything in their power to effect a ceasefire of some kind. The duo were as good as their word, as they gathered a small delegation of fellow officers to call on the Lord Mayor, Sir James Gallagher, on the Wednesday. With Cullen and Nugent were Major James Crean, the head of the National Volunteers, the Hon. Fitzroy Hemphill and Creed Meredith. None of these three were aware of Cullen and Nugent’s contacts with O’Connor or the Irish Volunteers.
Unfortunately, Gallagher proved less than helpful:
Our reception was anything but dignified. Both the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave us terrible abuse. Both expressed the hope that not a rebel would escape.
One by one we tried to reason with him that it was for the purpose of stopping the fight that we wished to intervene. He had been to the Castle and had consulted with the Army Authorities already.
After a long debate he said he would mention the matter. But he would not recommend any cessation of hostilities until the rebels were wiped out.
With this not-very-encouraging promise obtained from the Lord Mayor, for what it was worth, Nugent and Cullen left the other three to next try John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow and, more importantly, the Secretary of the National Volunteers. Through him, the pair hoped to induce John Redmond to exert his influence in Westminster for a truce. They were no more successful here:
Donovan was also very hostile and said that a telegram had been sent to him by Mr Redmond ordering him to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Military. The telegram had not been delivered and that was why he did not act. He could not act on a ‘phone message. We were sorry for this as we would have answered the call and used the arms and ammunition on our own way.
With little to show for their efforts, Cullen and Nugent returned to O’Connor, who had been mulling over options after talking with Pearse in the GPO. He asked the pair to contact the Dublin Fusiliers, one of the British regiments tasked with putting down the Rising, and offer £2 a man to defect, as per Pearse’s instructions.
Neither Cullen nor Nugent bothered asking O’Connor if he even had that sort of money – as the Fusiliers were based in Kilmainham, which was firmly in enemy hands, they had no chance of reaching them anyway. When Cullen offered the services of whatever National Volunteers he could muster, O’Connor declined.
“Send them home. We have no arms for them now,” he said, adding a trifle optimistically: “We will want them again.”
The End and the Start
O’Connor spent the rest of that fateful week passing messages in and out of the GPO – when he could. He was able to pass through British cordons by showing a letter to his father, a solicitor to the Land Commission, from Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, but even this proof of official connections had its limits, such as on the Thursday, when he found himself under fire while en route to the GPO and was forced to turn back.
The nonstop rattle of machine-guns had by then permeated the city, intercut by the boom of artillery. On Saturday, news filtered out that the rebel leaders had surrendered, cutting short the fight for Irish freedom. Those Volunteers who had not managed to slip away were held overnight on the wet grass of the Rotunda Gardens under searchlights and the curses of their British captors.
Still at large, O’Connor made further use of his father, getting him to write a letter to Dublin Castle, begging for intervention for George and Jack. Even if there was little chance of Joseph being spared execution, there might be hope for his brothers. He was on his way to deliver the letter when a bullet from a sniper, still holding out in the Royal College of Surgeons, ricocheted off a metal box on the corner of Grafton Street. O’Connor had had a close call before, but this time he was not so lucky, being hit in the leg.
So stricken, O’Connor was admitted to Mercer’s Hospital under an assumed name. Nonetheless, some of the nurses guessed he was one of the rebels on account of the holy medal in his pocket, a gift from Fiona Plunkett, Joseph’s sister, with whom he had an off-and-on relationship. Concerned that the nurses – who made plain their views on the Rising by telling O’Connor that he ought to be shot – would give away the identity of his patient, the doctor had him moved to a nursing home in Leeson Street.
He stayed there for three weeks until his brother Norbett found him. Another visitor while he was recuperating was Cullen, to whom O’Connor had sent word through one of the friendlier nurses. There was much for them to talk about, after all.
As Nugent put it:
For Rory O’Connor, Capt. T.J. Cullen, myself and the men who had already started organising again, the war was still on. Rory mentioned that it did not stop at any time, and while he and those who were prepared to work with him did so it would continue to carry on in various ways.
“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote Y.B. Yeats on the Rising but, for O’Connor, it was merely business as usual.
O’Connor had never been particularly important before the Rising, instead serving as an aide to those who were, such as Joseph Plunkett. But now, as one of the few leaders of the Irish Volunteers alive and at liberty, he was ideally placed to help shape events. For, though the Rising had been a military disaster, its aftermath provided a crop of opportunities to be harvested.
Patrick Little was one of his allies in this venture. If before Little had been dipping his toe in radical politics, now he threw himself in wholeheartedly, having had his offices in Eustace Street, where he did his work as a solicitor, trashed by British soldiers during Easter Week. When a rifle was found on the premises, the soldiers dragged out the son of the caretaker into the narrow lane at the back of the building, where they shot him.
The boy had been with the Irish Volunteers but, confused by the contradictory orders over mobilisation, he had decided to stay at home with his family. When H. H. Asquith visited Dublin three weeks after the Rising, Little made sure to avoid contact as the Prime Minister passed by Eustace Street.
As editor of New Ireland, Little had a platform to use, and in O’Connor he had a teacher in the new way of thinking. The two would lunch together in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, and Little attributed much of the content of his writings from that time to these conversations. Not only Little but the country as a whole was revaluating its stance on the National Question. When the pair travelled together to South Longford for the by-election in May 1917, even they were taken aback by the fervour of the crowds who responded at the sight of a tricolour with hearty cheers of “Up the Republic!”
“This was a time when public opinion was very confused and in a very transient condition,” Little remembered. “Many Unionists were prepared to accept Home Rule, and moderate national opinion, which represented the majority of people – and included the former supporters of Redmond – were becoming strongly Republican.”
Sinn Féin Rising
Among the beneficiaries of this shifting mood was Arthur Griffith. The ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the British state had called the Rising but, in truth, Griffith and his talking-shop of a group had had naught to do with it. Which did not stop Sinn Féin from basking in the appropriated glow of Easter Week when the public mood turned in its favour. Nor was Griffith in any particular hurry to correct the misnaming. Nationalist Ireland had been dominated for years by the IPP but now, as trust in Redmond and his Home Rule agenda plummeted, Sinn Féin was poised to step in with a promise of its own.
“As Ireland became pro-insurrection she became Sinn Féin, without knowing what Sinn Féin was,” was how one contemporary described the phenomenon, “except that it stood generally for Irish independence in the old complete way, the way in which the Irish Party had not stood for it.”
Opportunity presented itself in North Roscommon at the start of the new year, when the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) died in January 1917, and Count George Plunkett was the Sinn Féin selection for the resulting by-election. If the Rising had been a family affair for the Plunketts, then so was the subsequent political movement, as the Count was the father of Joseph Plunkett, and O’Connor, serving as the candidate’s unofficial aide, was his son-in-law in a way, given his romantic involvement with Fiona Plunkett.
When Nugent arrived in Roscommon, he found the contested consistency gripped in the chill of winter, and a threadbare campaign. The local Sinn Féin circles had not even been aware he was coming, so poor was the communication between them and Dublin. Nugent had been sent by O’Connor to help with the canvassing, but the only thing O’Connor had given him was advice, and that amounted to no more than ‘do what you think is right’.
Neither he nor Nugent had any experience in electioneering, or in public speaking in the case of the latter, but the handful of Sinn Féin activists who greeted him at Dromod Station, Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon, insisted he speak after Mass the next morning, the opening day of the campaign. Despite his doubts, as he stood in one foot of snow on the platform, Nugent did not feel he could refuse.
Nugent was set to speak at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, after Thomas Smyth, the Irish Party MP for Leitrim South. The two foes were driven to the church by the local priest, Father Lavin, who was keen to stay on friendly terms with both sides. After being introduced by Lavin in the church, Smyth delivered his pience, only to be received in stony silence by the congregation. Nugent then rose without waiting for an invitation and mounted the steps to the chancel for his turn.
The Election of the Snows
Afterwards, Nugent would not be able to remember what he said, only that, according to others who were present, they were “very strong things”. When Smyth tried to interrupt, he was quickly shushed. Nugent could read the writing on the wall: “As far as the election in this district was concerned, the Count had won there that first Sunday morning of the campaign.”
Things went even worse for Smyth later that day. He was so angry that he refused to let Nugent come with him and Father Lavan in the car to Slatta Chapel, where the two representatives were due to appear next.
“Smith [sic] could have saved himself the journey,” Nugent gloated, as the MP’s vehicle became stuck in the snow, forcing him and the priest to walk to Slatta Chapel, which Nugent had already reached by horse and trap. “My meeting was over before he arrived and it was most enthusiastic.”
Rubbing salt further into the wound, when Smyth finally had the chance to address the crowd, he was barred from doing so.
The times, they were a-changing, a point underlined when the votes from polling day were counted in the Roscommon Courthouse. Nugent drove back to Dublin, reaching his house in Dundrum to find it full of Sinn Féin supporters, including Margaret and Margaret Mary Pearse, the mother and sister respectively of the 1916 martyr. Though Margaret Pearse said she would be content with a win by as much as a single vote, even she found Nugent’s announcement of a landslide victory by Count Plunkett hard to take in.
When news of the result and its scale was published in the evening papers, the country understood that a great statement had been made – what that message was, however, would take some deciphering.
“When people say that this was not a Republican election, they say wrong,” Nugent would later write. “The principles of the men of Easter Week were shouted from every platform. From the crowds attending these meetings came the cries of ‘Up Dublin’.”
That he felt the need to clarify the issue was a sign in itself. It was not even clear if Count Plunkett intended to take his newly-won seat at Westminster, as some wanted, or if he would abstain on Republican principles, as per his declaration. And so O’Connor, acting as Plunkett’s unofficial director of operations, dispatched Nugent back to Roscommon to gauge local opinion on the question.
He returned with the answer that the electorate was not only fully in agreement with its MP but would return him with an even greater majority in the event of another election. When the Count confirmed that he would indeed not be taking his seat, there was, according to Nugent, “consternation in the ranks of Sinn Féin.”
It was clear that, despite their points of ideological overlap, there was at least as many differences between Sinn Féin and the burgeoning Republican movement, embodied in the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and behind-the-scenes operatives like O’Connor. “Rory O’Connor and the people working with him had different ideas from the Sinn Féin party,” was how Nugent put it.
‘Politicians’, a term loaded with contempt in the mouths of Nugent and other Republicans, included their Sinn Féin partners as much as the Redmondite old guard:
The politicians were different from the Volunteers. They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines. They were preparing to go back to their old political policy of action. Passive resistance was their programme.
When Count Plunkett announced at a rally in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, that the Irish Volunteers would be reformed and organised, this was exactly in line with O’Connor’s agenda, which most certainly did not include ‘passive resistance’. For there was a new battle to be waged, one not limited to Dublin and a few other scattered districts as Easter Week had been.
It would be nationwide.
It would be a Rising worthy of the name.
O’Connor’s statement on Easter Tuesday – “Send them home. We shall want them again” – now took on a different, more prophetic, meaning.
“But the politicians were troublesome,” Nugent noted with a sigh. “They did not countenance another fight.”
However annoying politicians might be, politics was not something that could be ignored. O’Connor had by then appointed himself secretary to Count Plunkett who, having scored his major win in North Roscommon, did not seem inclined to do anything with it. O’Connor would have to enter the Plunkett family residence in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street early enough to find all the mail dealing with the new movement before the absent-minded Count could put the letters in his pocket and forget about them.
As Ireland reassessed where it stood on the National Question, Sinn Féin was undergoing some restructuring of its own. After the North Roscommon by-election, Griffith increased the Executive with a few extra faces but, otherwise, “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive members. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.”
Lennon was uncomfortably aware that Count Plunkett and his Republican-minded followers were forming a party of their own, one with which “it was difficult to work in harmony. Many of these then Republicans treated Mr Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion.” Griffith may have had name recognition, being “probably the best-known man out of gaol,” but what his opponents lacked in numbers, they made up for in pushiness.
A meeting held in the Mansion House, dubbed the ‘Plunkett Convention’, on the 19th April 1917, was meant to unite the radicals of Ireland. Instead, it resulted in an undignified scramble between Giffith’s and Plunkett’s followers, one which Lennon cringed to remember:
The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.
After the Convention had ended, Griffith withdrew to his offices at 6 Harcourt Street. He was sitting in the front drawing-room with Lennon and a few other confidantes when:
Suddenly the door was thrown open and a man of splendid physique entered, followed by a frail figure. It was Michael Collins, accompanied by Rory O’Connor. This was the first time I ever saw the former. His entrance was characteristic of his manner at that period.
Looking around, rather truculently, his eyes rested on Mr Griffith, and he asked in a loud voice: “I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on.”
Griffith appeared rather more interested in the cigarette he was smoking. The by-election in South Longford was the second such contest of the year, one in which Sinn Féin and Plunkett’s faction were eager to replicate the success of North Roscommon – on whose terms, however, had yet to be decided.
“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket you will alienate all the young men,” Collins thundered to the room. By ‘young men’, he meant the Irish Volunteers. Even if not meant as a threat, it was hard not to take it as one.
‘A Great Silent Worker’
To Lennon, this was the first time he had heard the Republic being pushed as official policy, a sign of how divergent he and the others in Sinn Féin were from Collins, O’Connor and the other ‘young men’. The discussion – or argument, rather – warred on until, tiring of it, Collins and O’Connor withdrew to count the donations from the convention, the question put aside but most certainly not forgotten.
It was noticeable that Collins had been doing the talking while O’Connor remained silent; ‘fragile’, perhaps, but no less of a presence – or influence. “Rory O’Connor was not a politician or a parade man,” so Nugent described him. “He was a great silent worker and, consequently, he was not as well known to the rank and file of the army as were most of the other leaders.”
That the Plunkett Convention had happened at all was due to O’Connor. Dillon believed he had taken on the role of its secretary because no one else was doing it The invitation to the event, issued in the name of Count Plunkett, had been met with many a hostile reception, at least according to the Freeman’s Journal. Which was unsurprising, this being the organ of the IPP, but O’Connor would read almost every daily edition, specifically looking for the names of the one or two members in the various county or district councils who did not condemn the invitation, even when the rest voted to reject it.
To each of these dissenters, O’Connor would dispatch a letter, saying:
I see by the paper that you are the only person in ____ who represents the true opinions of the people and therefore send you a card of invitation to the convention.
“In this way,” Dillon described, “a very large attendance at the [Plunkett] Convention from all over the country was secured and tickets left over were given to Dublin supporters, so that when the day came the Round Room was full.”
For his part, Dillon had drawn up the agenda, with a number of resolutions to be passed. He did this at O’Connor’s request since Count Plunkett, after signing his name to the invites, assumed that all he had to do was address the attendees and leave it at that. Without O’Connor intervening with a workable agenda, the event might still have been an embarrassing flop. Instead, the Plunkett Convention was the first large-scale meeting in a movement that would upheave the political status quo.
And yet, despite all his work, O’Connor “never appeared on the scene. He was almost unknown,” according to Nugent, which was apparently the way he liked it. Even with the culmination of Sinn Fein’s political ascent, the Dáil Éireann, Geraldine Dillon knew of her friend’s involvement only as the one who escorted her and Fiona Plunkett to its inauguration, on the 21st January 1919, at the Mansion House.
On that same day, two policemen were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in the opening volley of what would become variously known as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish War or the Tan War; throughout which, O’Connor was to remain in the shadows, an obscure figure to the wider public despite the leading role he played.
When a reporter from the Derry Journal met O’Connor in April 1922, finding him to be a “serious, ascetic and somewhat cadaverous-looking man”, it was noted that, despite his involvement in the Republican movement since 1916, no one had heard of him until the recent Treaty split.
“If you or anybody else expect that I’m going to waste my time talking ‘bosh’ to the crowds,” James Connolly was heard to say, “for the sake of hearing shouts, you’ll be sadly disappointed.” He preferred instead to “give my message to four serious men at any crossroads in Ireland and know that they carry it back to the places they came from.”
This would prove to be more than just ‘bosh’ on Connolly’s part. A stiffening of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was noted in October 1914, upon his assumption of its leadership, with the announcement of a mandatory parade for all members. Rifles were to be “thoroughly cleaned”, anyone absent would be noted and latecomers refused admittance.
Meanwhile, articles by Connolly started to appear in the Workers’ Republic, critiquing the tactics deployed by past uprisings, such as Paris in 1848 and its use of barricades in an urban environment a particular point of interest. “The general principle to be deducted from a study of the example we have been dealing with,” Connolly wrote in July 1915:
…is that the defence is of almost overwhelming importance in such warfare as a popular force like the Citizen Amy might be called upon to participate in. Not a mere passive defence of a position valueless in itself, but the active defence of a position whose location threatens the supremacy or the existence of the enemy.
Less than a year later, in April 1916, these lessons would be applied in Moore Street and the Royal College of Surgeons as part of the Easter Rising in Dublin.
It had been an event long in gestation. It was also quite a departure from the starting goal of the ICA, when it was formed in response to the police brutality against strikers on the Bloody Sunday of 1913. Three months afterwards, in November, Jim Larkin publicly “spoke of the need for a disciplined force to protect the workers and signified his intention of forming a citizen army,” according to one of his audience.
There were, however, clues that more ambitious plans were afoot for the citizen army in question rather than self-defence. An article in the Irish Times had Connolly proclaim that the new body was “for victory, for the freedom of their country, and his and their grand ideal of a self-centred and a self-governing Ireland [as] a republic among the nations.” Even then, he had the big picture in mind.
In contrast, Jack White, the first Chairman of the ICA, had no such ambitions for any kind of upheaval, whether social or national. Despite his position of command within a paramilitary body, he was ambivalent about the use of force. “In moments I saw the clear revolutionary principle,” White wrote, “at others I was repelled by the bitterness of a philosophy fighting against the whole establishment order.”
The challenge of reconciling these competing strands of thought underpins much of the early chapters of the book. It is also indicative of Leddin’s style, which tends to be heavy on the political and less so on the personal. In any case, the withdrawal of Larkin and White from the scene, the former to America and the latter in favour of a position in the Irish Volunteers, left Connolly as the sole guiding hand of the ICA. Ireland in general was undergoing a radicalisation, with the forming of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to resist Home Rule, and Connolly looked forward to the time when the ICA could put the recalcitrant Ulstermen in their place.
“When King [Edward] Carson comes along here we will be able to line our own ditches,” he boasted on the day of the ICA’s birth. This is not to say, Leddin writes, “that Connolly was contemplating the events of Easter 1916 but that the possibility of using the Citizen Army as a national weapon had already occurred to him.”
As far as Connolly was concerned, it was not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the ICA would become involved in the wider struggle. Others appreciated the sentiment: Patrick Pearse greeted the transport union men, marked out by their red hand badges, at the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemoration in June 1913, telling those present that there were “no strangers here.”
From here, Leddin focuses on the growing rapport between the ICA and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the sort of ‘serious men at any crossroads’ who Connolly had in mind, and who shared his impatience for an armed uprising against the status quo. There were bumps on the road, however: the presence of Laurence Kettle as Secretary at the forming of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 was met with heckles from Labour men who objected to the presence of a known strike-breaker on the Provisional Committee.
The leadership of the Irish Volunteers as it stood was too broad in its demographics to be naturally inclined to revolution. The IRB consisted of only eleven members of the thirty-strong Committee, with the rest, if they were political at all, being from constitutionally or conservatively-minded groups like the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The indifference of the IPP towards the Lockout of 1913 meant that many in Labour regarded the Parliamentary Party as just as another enemy in the class war.
Labour did not play much better with others. “Larkin’s people for some time past have been making war on the Irish Volunteers,” complained Tom Clarke in a letter in May 1914, “they have antagonised the sympathy of all sections of the country and none more so than the advanced section.” He concluded with: “Liberty Hall is now a negligible quality.”
What a change, then, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April 1916, when Connolly and Pearse marched together at the heads of their respective armies from Liberty Hall, along Eden Quay and down Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, to take up headquarters in the General Post Office and thus begin the Rising that the latter had long contemplated – and now had the chance to put his research to the test.
It was the start of six days that would shake an empire but, even at that climaxing moment, there were uncertainties as to where the ICA exactly stood in regard to its comrades-in-arms. “You are going out to fight, not as the Irish Citizen Army, but as soldiers of the Irish Republic,” Connolly told his followers on the eve of battle.
It was a nice idea, one which others agreed with. “The Citizen Army ceased to exist on Monday of Easter Week,” recalled one participant, while for another: “When the joint forces were brought together on Easter Sunday there was no distinction between the Volunteers and the Citizen Army.”
Not all subscribed to this theory of neat and tidy assimilation, however. “While they [the ICA] may have shelved their identity, they never really lost it,” insisted another witness. Even Connolly appeared to have had suspicions, or at least reservations, about the extent of the alliance, as he advised his subordinates – in the same breath that he extolled them to fight alongside the Volunteers – to keep a hand on their guns, lest today’s friends become tomorrow’s foes.
Not that we will ever know what would have resulted in the event of a rebel win, though Leddin does not consider the likelihood of such a civil war as very likely. But it is also true that the ICA and the Volunteers, for all their ideological overlap, came together – to steal a later quote from Henry Kissinger – like porcupines making love: carefully. When Connolly went missing on the 19th January 1916, Michael Mallin, Countess Markievicz and William O’Brien, as the de facto troika for the ICA in their leader’s absence, prepared to kick-start their insurrection in Dublin early, with or without anyone else.
Only a request from the IRB, and then Connolly’s reappearance three days later on the 22nd, stayed their hand. Whether he had been brought willingly to the IRB meeting – the one where he was inducted into its military council and thus became privy to its plans – or was kidnaped is a matter of some debate, but it is noteworthy that the rest of the ICA initially assumed the worst.
Post-Rising, the ICA found itself on the sidelines as the Irish Volunteers, later the Irish Republican Army (IRA), dominated the subsequent struggle. Despite a short-lived attempt to expand into Cork, the ICA was always limited to Dublin and so could never match the breadth of the other force.
Though Labour provided assistance during the War of Independence and then the Civil War, and relations with the IRA remained amicable, “none of the ICA’s skirmishes were significant to the wider republican struggle,” writes Leddin. Easter Week was thus the only time the Army of Labour approached the status of a Hercules, after which it shrank to a pygmy’s.
Still, its example lived on. The Starry Plough that the ICA had borne on its flag became part of the iconography painted on Nationalist murals, alongside the Easter lily and phoenix, during the Troubles and afterwards. Indeed:
An Institute of Irish Studies survey on the display of public emblems in Northern Ireland found that in the months of September and October, from 2006 to 2009, the starry plough was the most likely republican or unionist paramilitary symbol to be on display in Northern Ireland.
Today’s political groups prove as eager as armed ones to claim the mantle. For Labour leader Joan Burton, a granddaughter of an ICA member, Connolly’s “core vision was one of equality” which just happened to be “a vision the Labour Party had sought to fulfil from its foundation.” In contrast, Gerry Adams emphasised on behalf of Sinn Féin the anti-Imperial and anti-Partition stances of the 1916 leaders while, to Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, Connolly’s importance lay in his internationalist, rather than merely nationalist, viewpoint.
If the Irish Citizen Army, then, is a question with multiple, competing answers, then this book should provide readers with plenty of material to help make up their own minds.
Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,
I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,
I let you in, I held you close,
My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.
(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)
It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.
While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.
A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.
After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:
That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.
An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.
Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.
But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.
As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.
The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.
“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”
From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.
Upon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”
These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.
An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.
Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.
Too cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.
Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.
Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.
Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.
If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.
The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.
De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.
Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.
But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”
But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.
Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.
Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.
An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.
Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:
In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.
On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.
Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.
Stranger in a Strange Land
So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.
The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:
Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’
In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.
“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”
Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:
I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.
Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.
Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.
These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.
“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”
Not an Easy Job
When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”
In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.
The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.
It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.
It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”
Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:
…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.
Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.
Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:
Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.
Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”
Truce and Tension
Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”
Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”
As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.
Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.
The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”
Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”
He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”
With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”
As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”
A Crooked Correspondence
It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”
Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”
It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”
Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:
…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].
As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:
…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’
O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:
As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.
Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.
‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’
Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:
Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.
So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.
Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”
Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.
“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.
It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.
But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”
A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.
“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.
Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.
But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”
This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.
Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.
‘Confusion and Alarm’
If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.
Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.
“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”
Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.
With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.
“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”
Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”
The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.
An Existing Peace
Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:
We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.
Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.
Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:
Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.
So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.
Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”
‘Seizing Every Advantage’
The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:
…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.
The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.
Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.
The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.
After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.
Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.
What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?
O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.
Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:
Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.
To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.
Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:
Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.
O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:
A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.
Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.
For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.
The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.
“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”
O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.
Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.
“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:
Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.
As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.
O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:
[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.
To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.
“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”
Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.
O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”
When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.
While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”
Slaying a man in the heat of battle is one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”
 Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
Since its armed takeover, on the 14th April 1922, by the anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Four Courts in Dublin had been, in the words of one of its garrison, a “veritable fortress”. Which was appropriate, given that it served as the base for the IRA leadership, the sixteen-strong Executive. As a mark of its importance, the building complex was reinforced with sandbags and barricades in its windows, behind which sentries with rifles and machine-guns watched over the city.
The overall impression was one of rough, unvarnished power:
Everything concerning it, emanating from it and centring it was purely and principally military; nothing was left to chance, as a military post and general Headquarters…In other words, it was the core, the very essence of IRA activity and of IRA administration.
Entry was strictly limited to those issued with a pass by the garrison command, whether for its soldiers or the odd guest. One of the latter was Robert Brennan, who came sometime in May 1922, in response to an invitation by Liam Mellows, the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive.
They had known each other since 1911, when Brennan had come across a troop of Fianna Éireann boys in Wexford, the one with unusually fair hair catching his attention in particular. When introduced to this golden youth, Brennan found himself “looking into the blue eyes of Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”
Such virtues had waned somewhat by the time the two men met again inside the Four Courts, eleven years later. Despite his own rejection of the Treaty, Brennan made clear his disapproval of his fellow Anti-Treatyites and their antics when he turned down Mellows’ offer to be their Director of Publicity.
He could not, Brennan explained, because there was nothing more that publicity could do: they had abandoned all authority save that of the gun and no amount of public relations could hide that unpalatable fact.
Mellows was hurt at the accusation. “The Republic is being undermined,” he replied. “What else could we have done?”
“Possibly nothing,” Brennan said bluntly. “Your job is to get the other fellow to submit or submit yourselves. The time for publicity is passed.”
“Well, we’re going to act.”
“By attacking the British.”
“But they are going out.”
“We’ll attack them before they leave.”
When an unimpressed Brennan told him what he thought of that, Mellows insisted: “It’s not as crazy as you think. It’s the only way we can unite the Army.”
In that regards, Mellows had a point. A common foe would certainly do wonders in bringing the sundered comrades together again. But it was a sign of how topsy-turvy the world had become that a man whose efforts to free Ireland of foreign rule had been second to none was now, in all seriousness, suggesting the return of British soldiers for want of any other solution.
When Ernie O’Malley walked in to ask Mellows about the tunnels to be dug for an escape route. Brennan made his excuses and left, more depressed than ever at the insanity unfolding all around him.
A glimmer of hope came to a country poised on the brink of fratricidal war when, on the 20th May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera put their names to an agreement. A general election would be held and contested by both their respective factions, but with everyone standing on the same Sinn Féin platform, without reference to the Treaty, either in regard to the candidates’ opinions or for the country in general – the matter being considered too prickly to be grasped just yet.
In truth, it was intended to be an election in name only with the voters doing nothing more than rubber-stamping the names presented to them, but that the two sides could agree on anything at all was heralded as a major breakthrough. Former comrades who had been at each other’s throats now mingled freely inside the National University, as TDs waited for the Dáil session to open so they could give this accord the official seal of approval. Mellows stood with his legs far apart, his hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches while he chatted with Richard Mulcahy.
After all the gnawing tension, the announcement of this ‘Pact Election’ was “greeted with relief by all of us,” remembered Máire Comerford, a secretary in the Sinn Féin offices:
Everything looked brighter after that…Now, with the Pact, friendly exchanges of arms going in between Free Staters and Republicans…and a conference between the rival armies which had reached the point of agreement, it seemed certain that there would be an agreement.
Mellows took full advantage of this, visiting Beggars Bush barracks to see Seán Mac Mahon, Quartermaster to the Free State forces. Joining him on a number of these visits was Tony Woods, son of Mary Woods, whose home on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, had provided a base for Mellows during his gun-running days as Director of Purchases.
Probably because of his acquaintance with Mellows, Tony Woods had been transferred to his staff and travelled with Mellows to Waterford to help arrange the arms-landing there, via the Frieda, in November 1921. Woods remembered his commanding officer as a “low-sized man with a very high forehead; extremely witty and a great story-teller.”
The purpose of the meetings in Beggars Bush, as with Mellows’ previous duty, was that of weapons. The Free State owned the City of Dortmund, another ship used to smuggle in guns, and it was a sign of the heady new rapprochement that half the shipments went to the Anti-Treatyites while the pro-Treaty IRA kept the rest. Woods was uncertain of the details at the time, but the idea was that these weapons would make their way up to Ulster, where the Northern IRA was still engaged with British forces.
As well as in Beggars Bush, Woods joined his commanding officer for clandestine visits to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to meet a mystery contact of Mellows’. There, they received implements for the purpose of overturning trams to form barricades and listened to some far-fetched scheme to flood the British market with forged pound notes.
Though Woods never caught the contact’s name, he suspected he was a Communist, Mellows being open to such company. This put him at odds with his more conservatively-minded peers, for whom Bolshevism and their Catholic faith could never meet, let alone mix. While Mellows was “religious in his own way,” Woods thought, “he nonetheless tended towards socialism.”
Moderates and Extremists
Even as relations between the Pro and Anti-Treatyites began to thaw, those within the IRA Executive conversely took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps it was the lack of a firm guiding hand that caused cracks to form in the Executive. Maybe its components were too strong-minded to ever coexist comfortably with one another. Authority nominally rested in Liam Lynch as their Chief of Staff but, having bucked military discipline once before, it was no great taboo to do so again, and it soon became apparent that different groups were acting on their own volition without consideration for the rest.
“Thus the Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor – a Dublin member of the Executive (and no relation to Rory) – put it, a sigh almost audible in his words. When a number of bank robberies were carried out, Joseph was not even sure if it had been Lynch or Mellows who authorised them.
Another Executive insider, Liam Deasy, was similarly in despair. He was close to Lynch, and it pained him how, for all of his fellow Corkonian’s accomplishments in the fight against Britain, it was “painfully obvious that he was not considered sufficiently extreme by some of his colleagues.”
Deasy characterised these tensions as “a clash between the moderates and the extremists.” He counted Lynch and himself as the former, while identifying Mellows, along with Rory O’Connor and Séumas Robinson, as among the latter. Mellows was at least more personable than O’Connor, but that small mercy did little to alleviate the tensions, the result of which led to:
…many unpleasant incidents reflecting badly on the elected Executive. Worse still it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side.
The hurt and anger are still discernable in Deasy’s words, written years later in his memoirs: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful.”
This policy in question was that, by keeping the anti-Treaty IRA armed and intact, they could push for – or force – a more republican-orientated Constitution for the new government, one without the burden of the Oath of Allegiance that so stuck in many a craw. Not that there was any need to worry, reassured Mulcahy and Michael Collins, for such a constitution was already on the cards. This was good enough for Lynch and Deasy, who “had at the time, no reason to doubt the credibility or integrity of those who had given that promise.”
Which was one of the points on which the ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ on the IRA Executive differed. Todd Andrews became acquainted with Mellows while performing clerical work in the Four Courts as part of its garrison. When Mellows entered his office, where he was working alone, the two struck up a conversation on the state of affairs. Andrews found him to be “a low-sized man with thinning sandy hair and merry blue lively eyes. His whole personality seemed to radiate kindness. He was a dea-dhuine (decent man).”
Andrews was flattered that someone so important would take the time to ask his opinions. When the topic of conversation came to that of their Chief of Staff, the kindness became rather less evident, for it seemed to Andrews that Mellows was “critical of Liam Lynch for placing too much trust in Collins’ and Mulcahy’s good intentions.”
Seán MacBride was unaware of much of this drama, having been in Berlin for the past ten days on Mellows’ behalf. Most of his work in Ireland involved the secretarial side of the IRA, such as the paperwork dealing with the numbers of the various anti-Treaty units throughout the country, but the cosmopolitan 18-year-old (and future politician) was also sent abroad by Mellows on occasion for certain assignments.
This time, it was to contact an arms dealer called Hoover, who the IRA suspected of double-crossing them. MacBride succeeded in convincing Hoover to accompany him back to Ireland for a meeting, set for the morning of the 18th June, the plan being for MacBride to arrest the miscreant then and there. Hoover was none the wiser as they caught the early morning mail-ship to Dublin, where they separated, Hoover heading off to the Shelbourne Hotel while MacBride made his way to the Four Courts.
Upon arrival, MacBride availed himself of a wash and some food before chancing upon a flustered Mellows, much to the latter’s relief, for an IRA convention was set to start and no one could find the notes prepared in advance. As MacBride hurried off to help find them, he saw O’Malley, his superior as the Director of Organisation.
O’Malley was only just getting up, having toiled well into the night. He quickly brought his young assistant up to date with recent developments. There had been backroom talks between the heads of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, he explained, about healing the breach and reuniting former brothers-in-arms.
Which was a noble goal in principle. As certain members of the Executive would hold positions on the proposed new Army Council and thus retain some influence, it might even be said to be a good deal. But, in practical terms, such a move would also mean coming under the control of the Free State and all that – specifically the Treaty – entailed.
When these proposals had been put before the IRA Executive, they were voted down by fourteen to four, although it was also agreed for a convention to be summoned, the third in three months. There, the questions could be put to their followers and decided on for good.
“Of course all these things came on me like a bombshell, as when I left the whole Executive was quite united,” MacBride recalled. Clearly, a lot could happen in ten days.
There was no time for MacBride to deal personally with Hoover, whose appointment in the Four Courts was almost due. So he delegated the arrest to someone else, while he tracked down the necessary documents for the convention, to be held in the Mansion House.
It took an hour for MacBride to finish checking the credentials for the various delegates at the door, and then another lengthy period of time as the question of who among the Executive was to be the chairman was discussed – and discussed – and discussed. Such was the tenseness of the atmosphere that even a simple matter as that was anything but. Finally, Joseph O’Connor was chosen for the role and the convention could begin.
As MacBride remembered – and there would slightly different versions of that event from other attendees – Mellows opened by reading a report on the general state of affairs. When he was done, Tom Barry, the famed guerrilla commander from West Cork, rose to make a proposal. Instead of the one on whether to reunite with the Pro-Treatyites, as many in the hall had been expecting, it was that an ultimatum be delivered to the British Army still stationed in Ireland: withdraw within seven-two hours or face war all over again.
MacBride had been warned beforehand by O’Malley, but most of the others present were caught by surprise. It took another lengthy, drawn-out process, with various speakers chipping in, for it to be generally understood that Barry’s war motion was intended to be an alternative to the reunification one.
In MacBride’s opinion, “it was very foolish of Barry to have put forward such a resolution at the Convention.” While he agreed with what the Corkman was trying to do, “by putting it forward at a Convention without consulting anybody, as he did, was putting those who supported that policy in a very awkward position.”
As if to pour oil on to the fire, Mellows followed up with a “very depressing speech”, which exposed all too “clearly that there was a very big split in the Executive.”
Anyone previously unaware of these festering divisions could be left in no doubt now. On one side was Liam Lynch, the Chief of Staff, who was pushing for the reunification proposals, with the support of Liam Deasy and Seán Moylan. Arrayed against them in favour of a more hard-line approach were Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Tom Barry.
MacBride lost track of the proceedings, as speech after speech was delivered, blurring into one. When the war motion was finally put to the vote, MacBride was one of the two tellers. Barry’s proposal was found to have passed by a couple of votes, a razor-thin majority which was immediately challenged on the basis that certain delegates had not been present at the previous convention in May, thus invalidating their contributions. When the objection was upheld, a revote was made, this time resulting in the defeat of Barry’s motion.
This was too much for Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who left the room when the reunification proposals were brought up in turn. With them followed half the remaining participants, including MacBride. He found O’Connor and Mellows conversing outside with Joe McKelvey, a third member of the Executive. Another convention would be held, the trio announced to those who had accompanied them, in the Four Courts the next day.
There was just two further matters to see to, both of which Mellows assigned to MacBride: return to the convention and alert the rest as to what had been said. Also, he was to retrieve Mellows’ hat, left behind in the commotion.
MacBride did so. “There was an absolute stillness and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door. A few more delegates came out.”
Amputation and Isolation
When Joseph O’Connor called in on the Four Courts the following morning, he was barred by the sentry, who pointed to a set of photographs at hand and said he had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone depicted. The faces were those who, like O’Connor, had stayed behind at the convention instead of leaving with the dissenters.
O’Connor was shocked. He had watched for some time, with growing dismay how fissures formed in the Executive, but this exclusion was the final straw. When O’Connor could not even see anyone in charge for an explanation, he turned instead to the rest of the Executive, who had likewise been expelled from their own headquarters.
And so it was a diminished body who gathered at Gardiner’s Row for an uncomfortable session. Lynch, in particular, was outraged but, since there was little any of them could do, it was decided to take no action for the moment. While O’Connor was departing Gardiner’s Row, he came across Mellows, who urged him to return to the Four Courts. Clearly, there were second doubts about the wisdom of such a heavy-handed approach.
As O’Connor was still in a sour mood, it took some persuasion on Mellows’ part for him to agree to meet with the Executive mutineers, who were in the midst of setting up a war council of their own. After O’Connor explained to them at length the lunacy of having two separate anti-Treaty armies in Dublin, concessions were made in the form of Lynch and his adherents being allowed inside the Four Courts again. Lynch had by then resigned as Chief of Staff, with McKelvey taking up the role instead, for what it was worth, as his authority did not extend to anyone other than the occupants of the Four Courts.
It was a peculiar situation. Having witnessed the debacle of the convention, Todd Andrews was so disgusted that he announced to his senior officer, Ernie O’Malley, his intention to resign. O’Malley talked him out of it, but the fact remained, in all its spiteful absurdity, that “the Four Courts garrison had amputated their most powerful limb, effectively isolating themselves in the last bastion of the Republic.”
‘The Straight Road to the Republic’
Two days later, on the 20th June, three or four army lorries drove Mellows, Rory O’Connor and other senior officers from the Four Courts to Bodenstown to mark the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. Ireland, the republican cause and the IRA, whatever the particular faction, may have been in pitiable disarray, but there were still rituals to perform and commemorations to attend.
The day was a dark and muggy one, with an overcast sky, perfectly suited to “suggest the pathetic fallacy to match our gloomy mood,” remembered Andrews, who had joined the pilgrimage. The others huddled around Mellows as he made a speech at Tone’s graveside, full of denunciations of those who were trying to undermine the Republic – and that included anyone, whether Free State or faint-hearts like Lynch who talked the talk while lacking the nerve when it counted.
It was an attitude summed up by MacBride who, unlike Andrews, was in full agreement with such a viewpoint:
It was far better to break off quits from those who were prepared to compromise on such a vital question, that of the control of the Army, and of the working of the Treaty. As in fact they had already done when they acquiesced in the proposals by which the control of the Army was to be given to the Provisional Government.
Far from being a calamity:
It probably would have been even better if such a split had come before, however weakening it might have been; it was far more weakening to have the Army controlled by people, who, although sincere, did not put their heart into it and who still believed their opponents could be trusted in negotiations.
‘The straight road to the Republic’ was how Mellows had explained it to a friend, Frank Robbins, who visited him in the Four Courts the day after its takeover. Robbins had urged him to compromise or else prepare for war, but Mellows had dismissed the possibility of either happening, unable or unwilling to face the looming consequences of his actions, even when they were explained to him.
And perhaps that was his fatal flaw, and the reason he and the others were so daring, and so dogmatic, because, almost to the last hour, none of them truly believed that things would reach the point of war.
A war with Britain, yes, another one would be ideal, as Mellows had explained to Brennan. What better way to bury the hatchet than by planting it inside the skull of a common foe? But a war against fellow Irishmen? Even a precocious young cynic like Andrews assumed the Pro-Treatyites would never go so far as to attack them, however fragmented they were. For this would mean civil war, and such a thing was clearly an impossibility.
“Something would still be done to avoid that contingency,” was how Andrews remembered the thinking at the time. “I never thought it could happen that IRA men would try to kill fellow IRA men.”
Mellows happily sleepwalked into disaster with the rest. In the week before the 28th June 1922, when – to steal a line from W.B. Yeats – ‘all changed, changed utterly’, Mellows sent for Sheila Humphreys, a member of Cumann na mBan who had sheltered IRA leaders like Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha during the War of Independence, back when they were all on the same side. She met him at the home of Mary Woods on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, another republican safe-house for troubled times.
There, Mellows cheerfully outlined to Humphreys how the pro and anti-Treaty IRA factions had acceded to a policy he had long hoped for: uniting against Britain, specifically British rule in the North. If the enemy would not come to them, then the Fenian Mohammed would go to the imperial mountain.
With that in mind, he instructed her to pick six other women from Cumann na mBan and go with them to Co. Donegal to set up a field hospital in preparation for the operations to come. In addition to first aid equipment, he provided a revolver each for the women, including spare ammunition and explosives.
Some of these had come off the City of Dortmund and shared between the rival parties during the earlier lull in tension. Other firearms from the cargo were still inside the Four Courts by the time of the 28th June, when all hell broke loose. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Woods pointed out that this “will give some idea of the speed with which events moved in the weeks preceding, and how suddenly completely personal relationships came to be broken.”
Over the next few days that led up to the 28th June, events moved with considerable speed, indeed.
A stand-off unfolded on the 26th in South Dublin, as a body of pro-Treaty IRA men rode in on lorries from Beggars Bush to confront the Anti-Treatyites who had held up a garage in Lower Baggot Street. All its cars had already been driven away to the Four Courts, and the anti-Treaty men who remained were in the process of wrecking the garage machinery when their Free State opponents arrived to box them in.
As reported by the Irish Times:
Negotiations were entered into between the leaders of the two parties, and it is understood that the official forces demanded complete evacuation on the part of the raiders and also, it was stated, the return of the “commandeered” cars.
The trapped Anti-Treatyites were given three hours, until 6 pm, to comply. After two and a half, the twenty workmen held prisoner inside were allowed to leave. Soon afterwards, the Pro-Treatyites manoeuvred one of their armoured vehicles to the front of the garage, training its machine-gun on the closed gate, while the rest of the squad positioned themselves for the threatened assault.
As 6 o’clock approached, it looked as if fire would be opened at any minute, but at the stroke of six the gate was opened, and the Beggars Bush forces were admitted.
It appeared that some of the Anti-Treatyites had already absconded via a back entrance. Those still present were detained, though only one was made a prisoner – the commanding officer, Leo Henderson. Despite the non-violent (‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word) resolution, it had been a close thing.
“Indeed,” wrote the Irish Times, “it seemed at one time as if a conflict between the forces of the Provisional Government and certain irregulars was imminent.”
The Four Courts garrison issued a protest to the media at Henderson’s treatment as a common prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. They quickly made their displeasure known in a more direct way when, in a tit-for-tat move, Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was held up while leaving a friend’s house on Leeson Street.
That O’Connell had seen fit to make personal calls, while uniformed and unattended in public, does not suggest that the sense of danger among the Pro-Treatyites was high. But that changed. Contrary to their demands for a full return, only two of the sixteen cars stolen from Lower Baggot Street had been given back and now, with a general of theirs a captive in the Four Courts, a decision was made.
Despite the commotion over Henderson, the talk at the IRA Executive conclave inside the Four Courts, on the 27th June, was about nothing in particular. Even the news that Michael Collins had just returned from London, where he had been castigated for his failure to break the impasse, did little to worry them.
At the end, as Joseph O’Connor made to leave, he was informed by his adjutant that their pro-Treaty opponents in the city had been confined to their barracks, as if in readiness for…something.
When O’Connor passed this on to Liam Lynch, the other man merely said: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.” He added, almost as an afterthought: “You had better tell McKelvey.”
When O’Connor did so, McKelvey at least had the presence of mind to alert the Dublin IRA about the city to stand to until midnight. Mellows chose that moment to invite O’Connor to tea, “being anxious to tell me of IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] activities in having the Treaty accepted.”
That the IRB was at the root of their problems was a conspiracy theory favoured by many of the Anti-Treatyites, including Mellows. Long gone were the days when he had been an active operative for the Brotherhood, on whose behalf he travelled the length of the country to prepare for the Easter Rising.
When O’Connor declined the offer on account of having to be with the rest of the Dubliners, they agreed to meet instead on the following evening. Clearly, neither of them suspected that anything was especially amiss.
That was the last time the pair were to see each other, as O’Connor mournfully recounted:
At four o’clock the following morning the attack on the Courts started and I never saw Mellows again. What a pity, for of all the men on the Executive, he was the one I most loved.
During the previous four months of trouble and anxiety we had become very close friends, in complete sympathy with each other’s national outlook, and I certainly would have liked to have got that story.
O’Connor departed the Four Courts, accompanied by Liam Lynch, with Mellows and most of the other Executive members remaining. By 10 pm of the 27th, the rumours of an impending assault had become definite when a visiting Franciscan friar informed them that Free State soldiers were leaving the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the direction of Dublin.
The lovingly-crafted fantasy world that Mellows had inhabited for the past few weeks, in which everything was fine and all would sort itself out, was about to be rudely intruded.
Suddenly alert to the inadequacy of their defences, neglected during the past few weeks of inactivity, the senior garrison officers hurriedly – and belatedly – consulted each other on what to do.
Always one of the more aggressive among them, O’Malley wanted word sent to the Dublin IRA for them to post snipers over the routes to the Four Courts to stop the Free Staters in their tracks, with preparations to be made for a counter-attack. But McKelvey disagreed on the grounds that they should retain the moral high ground of not casting the first blow. O’Malley, Mellows and Paddy O’Brien, the garrison commander, were exasperated at this indolence, however well-meant, but McKelvey’s motion to hold their ground and do nothing else was carried by the rest of the Executive.
As armoured cars drove up, the Anti-Treatyites were forced to watch impotently from the windows, under orders not to shoot, while enemy soldiers disembarked to cut the wires of the mines planted outside, rendering useless even these token precautions. At least the defenders could busy themselves by erecting more coils of barbed wire, cleaning their guns and checking the ammunition stocks, but otherwise did nothing as more vehicles arrived, the Lancia lorries parking before the gates as if to point out how thoroughly besieged the occupants were becoming.
Under the dome of the rotunda, the leadership met again, with Mellows, McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, O’Malley, O’Brien and others sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Some wanted to escape while they could and join the anti-Treaty units outside the city but Mellows was unsure.
“We don’t know what the country will do,” he pointed out, meaning the other Anti-Treatyites. At last he seemed conscious of the damage their bickering had caused. Even if the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA decided to join them, it might not be in time to make a difference.
“We have created the Four Court situation,” he concluded, according to O’Malley’s recollections. “We should face the responsibility.”
He was seconded by Rory O’Connor. As they represented the Republic, he said, it was only right they stay to defend it, regardless of how poor a strategy that was. Paddy O’Brien protested, urging the Executive to slip away while he and the rest kept the Pro-Treatyites busy, but was once again overruled.
Not so manageable was Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary IRA. To him, staying put like so many eggs in a basket was pure idiocy. After an attempt by Mellows and O’Connor to persuade him otherwise degenerated into a heated row, Robinson stormed off into the night. It was another loss for the Executive, one final split in a movement bedevilled by them.
Still, for some, the glass before them was half-full. As the defenders prepared for the showdown, resigned to a fight many suspected they could not win, Mellows paced the grounds with a rifle slung over his back, finally in his element.
“God, it’s good to feel myself a soldier again after all these futile negotiations,” he told O’Malley, patting the barrel of his gun.
 Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40 ; O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 199
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 221, 237
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.
Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.
On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.
When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.
The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.
This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.
Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.
“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.
Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?
As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.
A Soldier’s Heart
If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.
All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:
But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.
The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.
Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.
Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.
Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.
Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.
In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”
Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:
[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.
As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.
The Scottish Connection
Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.
When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:
He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.
No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.
By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.
Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.
Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.
Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.
With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.
The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.
Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.
An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.
Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:
Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.
He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.
Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.
But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.
It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.
Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.
She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.
Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.
Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.
The Landing in Waterford
As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.
This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.
The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.
Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.
White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness was to lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.
McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.
White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.
McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.
Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.
Like Stars of Constancy
Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:
The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.
As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.
Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.
Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.
Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.
Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:
Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.
Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.
Letting the Situation Develop
Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.
Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance: a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.
Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.
As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”
He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.
Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.
The Fear of the People
Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:
I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.
To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”
Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”
The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:
The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –
“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.
“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”
Peace with Honour
It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”
For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.
Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:
Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.
As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:
…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.
And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.
It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.
Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.
A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.
Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his listeners could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”
Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.
The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.
When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.
“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”
This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.
What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.
Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.
The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.
O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:
…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.
Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.
The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.
But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.
“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”
It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.
Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.
Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.
As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.
“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”
The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.
In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.
The Straight Road to the Republic
The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:
Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.
Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.
It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.
O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.
This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.
For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.
He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price. Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.
When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.
In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.
Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?
Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.
“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”
But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.
“Then there must be a civil war.”
“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”
They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.
A Lot of Sick People
Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”
As Lawless recalled:
I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.
Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:
I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.
Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.
Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?
Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:
A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”
The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.
Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.
A Last Meeting
Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.
After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.
“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”
“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”
“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”
If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”
To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.
When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.
That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.
 Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3
 ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp.227-31
McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Bureau of Military History Statements
Daly, Una, WS 610
Dore, Eamon T., WS 515
Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043
Moylan, Seán, WS 838
Noyk, Michael, WS 707
Reader, Seamus, WS 933
White, Vincent, WS 1764
Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624
‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html
Safe in New York, if unsettled, Patrick Callanan pined for his friend and former commanding officer, Liam Mellows. Other Irishmen had joined him in the United States, also fleeing in the wake of the failed Easter Rising, but Mellows was not amongst them.
Callanan had discussed him with John Devoy when he visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper – of which Devoy was editor – after coming to New York in November 1916. Callanan reassured Devoy, a Fenian old-timer and one of the most powerful men in the Irish-American community, that Mellows was on his way. And yet, with no further word, Callanan could not help but worry.
His own journey had been an arduous one. After the disbandment of the Galway Volunteers at Limepark House on Mellows’ reluctant orders, Callanan was among those forced to go on the run. He first hid out with his cousins in Co. Galway, before moving to Co. Clare and then Waterford town, from where he took a boat to Liverpool, and then another to Philadelphia.
The Atlantic crossing took nineteen days, at risk all the while from German submarines. When nearing the mouth of the Delaware River, the crew was told to extinguish all lights lest they betray their position to any lurking U-boats. After disembarking safely, Callanan pushed on to New York, where Devoy and the Irish-American organisation he headed, Clan na Gael, welcomed him with open arms as a fellow revolutionary.
Provided with some money by Devoy for living expenses. Callanan could at least take a well-earned. But waiting idly did not suit him, nor did it for many of his compatriots in the city, and the initiative was made – without consulting Devoy – to contact the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.
Following some consultation with Berlin, Bernstorff was able to report back the willingness of his government to land arms and soldiers on the west coast of Ireland. Considering the lacklustre support Germany had granted to the previous uprising earlier in the year, this was a questionable claim, but Callanan took it at face value.
Callanan was abed one night in December 1916 when he was woken by someone pulling at him. To his surprise and joy, it was none other than Mellows. The two comrades-in-arms had not seen each other since leaving Limepark House, eight months ago. After sleeping the rest of the morning in bed together, Callanan took him to the Gaelic American office and introduced him to Devoy, who was quite taken with the newcomer, praising him as the most capable man who had yet arrived (Callanan did not seem offended by this), and going so far as to offer him a job on his newspaper.
Devoy would not be quite so amiable when learning of the contacts made with Count von Bernstorff. The émigrés had gone behind his back, on his territory of New York no less, and Devoy was fiercely intolerant of anything that encroached on his prerogatives. His anger was a sign that life in America for the Irish exiles would not necessarily be an easy, nor a straightforward, one.
The War Continues
Callanan let Mellows in on the arrangement for Germany to supply arms and men to Ireland. Having been let down before by their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, Mellows thought it best to proceed with care by first sending a man to Germany and another two to Ireland to ensure the whole process went smoothly. Callanan went along with Mellows’ amendments to the plan without a murmur. After examining some maps together, they agreed that the Martello Tower near Kinvara, Co. Galway, would make the best landing site.
It would be but another move in the fight for Irish freedom, which had been paused but never ceased as far as Mellows was concerned. He was especially keen to correct all talk to the contrary, as Callanan described:
At this time rumours were current in America that there would be no more fighting in Ireland and that all we wanted was to be represented at the Peace Conference [when the First World War was over]. Mellows resented this very much and he stated at several meetings that Ireland would fight again, and what we wanted was arms.
Even when Callanan moved to Boston, the two men remained in contact. One Saturday – the day he usually visited New York to see Mellows – Callanan found his friend in an especially serious mood.
Mellows told him that he had been in communication with a German woman living on the West Coast. She was willing to offer a boat of hers at their disposal if a crew could be provided. For this, Mellows tasked Callanan with finding four or five others to serve as firemen and coal-passers, while he would inquire after engineers.
The plan was for Mellows to lead the others in sailing through Russian waters to Germany, taking the lengthier westwards route rather than the more direct Atlantic one to avoid the British navy. In Germany, the boat would be loaded with munitions and then landed in Ireland, as previously discussed.
Fired up, Callanan agreed to do his part and succeeded in recruiting four sailors-to-be, but when the pair met again on the following Saturday, Mellows admitted to being unable to muster enough engineers. The plan was cancelled and, while it would not be the only arms-running attempt, it was but the first of many setbacks Mellows faced in the Land of the Free.
A Great Spirit
In the meantime, there were other ways to further the cause. To his delight, Callanan found that in the States “a great spirit prevailed at this time, especially among those of Irish descent. They were all very anxious to hear about the happenings of Easter Week.”
It was a zeitgeist Clan na Gael was keen to tap into it, and Mellows spoke on behalf of the society at a series of meetings. As one of the participants in the Rising, and a leading one at that, Mellows made for an especially effective speaker, holding his audiences spellbound with his tales of the heroics from that fateful week.
His oratory, remembered one witness, Robert Briscoe, “made you see things he had experienced, and dream the same great dreams.” Though the revolution had been bloodied, Mellows assured his listeners, it had not been broken. It lived on, seething beneath the seemingly pacified surface of the country. This was music to Briscoe’s ears. The vision Mellows invoked “struck deep into my soul, bludgeoning my common sense.”
Since landing in the United States from Dublin in December 1914, Briscoe had lived the life of a Horatio Alger hero, earning his first dollar as a humble packer before partnering in a lucrative company that produced Christmas tree-lights. But the American dream proved not enough, as Briscoe found his thoughts returning to his homeland, piqued in particular by the news of Easter Week.
Hearing Mellows speak confirmed to Briscoe what he had to do. Turning his back on his thriving business, he took on the duties of shipping guns to Ireland. In time, he would become a close friend of the man who had made him a convert.
While Mellows was helping to clear the doubts of others, he was having some of his own. “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today I would never have fired a shot,” he told Frank Robbins as they were walking together in New York in mid-1917.
Like Mellows, Robbins had fought in the Rising, except in his case he had been a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), in charge of occupying the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Released from Frognoch Camp in August 1916, his defiance, like that of Mellows’, remained undimmed as he assisted in the ICA revival, or at least tried to, as it lacked the necessary funds and contacts to make much of an impact anymore.
But Robbins did not allow himself to despair. When asked by Tom Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), to head Stateside and connect with the Union’s erstwhile leader, Jim Larkin, Robbins readily accepted.
Reaching New York in late 1916, Robbins made the acquaintance of many in the radical Irish-American scene, including Devoy and Mellows, the latter he came in contact with through a mutual friend, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Week martyr, James Connolly. Both Robbins and Mellows had been close to her father, but they had not met until Nora passed on Mellows’ address at 73 West 96th Street, where he was staying with the Kirwan family.
Robbins was thrilled to meet a man who had been so influential in revolutionary circles back in Ireland, and who continued being so in New York, recognised by all, according to Robbins, as the de facto leader of the ‘1916 exiles’. The appreciation was reciprocated, with Mellows giving Robbins a copy he had signed of John Mitchel’s classic Jail Journal.
Doubts and Uncertainties
And so it was with some surprise that Robbins heard Mellows express such bitter incertitude. Only the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had the authority to declare an uprising, Mellows said, and that had been appropriated. To Robbins’ astonishment, Mellows castigated those responsible as a junta which had ignored everyone else in its pursuit of its own intrigues.
Robbins thought this change of heart was due to what certain other Irish émigrés had been saying, but Mellows adamantly denied this to be the case. Robbins then methodically dissected Mellows’ volte-face.
He had been singing the praises of the Rising, while eulogising James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse and all the others who had laid down their lives to rejuvenate Ireland’s soul, bringing the cause of national freedom to the world stage, and saving its manhood from British servitude. With all that said, if Mellows now believed the opposite, he should go back before the people of America and tell them so.
“But before you do that, I would ask you to examine the whole matter thoroughly,” Robbins continued. For if Mellows was still uncertain, he would have to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and whose efforts, Mellows had to agree, were now bearing the fruits the two of them were looking forward to gathering.
“Thanks, Frank,” Mellows replied, “I never looked at it that way. You have eased my mind considerably. I was very worried about the whole matter.”
Another disagreement was when Mellows posed the question as to what form of government a free Ireland should take. As Robbins was a staunch republican, and knew Mellows to be the same, he assumed his friend was jesting in his contention that the people should be free to choose, whether it be a republic or monarchy, but the conversation grew heated as Mellows refused to back down.
“He continued to uphold the view that it was for the people to decide,” Robbins wrote years later, still in shocked wonder. He assumed that Mellows “had not expected opposition from me but having taken the stand he would not retreat. So the talk ended in disagreement,” and not for the last time.
By a quirk of fate, Mellows would end up opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an unacceptable compromise, while Robbins, who had denounced anything short of a Republic, accepted the agreement for something that fell short of that ideal. But such contradictions and tragedies were to be for the future.
The Search for Guns
Mellows came to trust Robbins enough to bring him in on his latest German gun-running mission. The version he had arranged with Callanan had been elaborated into three separate landings in Co. Wexford, Down and Clare. In preparation for this, Mellows was to work on a fruit-boat from New York to Montevideo, and from there take another to Spain, where a submarine would pick him up for the final leg of the journey to Germany. Thinking he was looking for assistance, Robbins volunteered his services, but Mellows at first demurred.
‘Our friends down town’, by which Mellows meant Clan na Gael, had ruled this to be a one-man job. Robbins was a little mystified at this, and wondered if Mellows had simply failed to be assertive: “It was not for me to make a comment but I thought that had Mellows pressed the need for a second it would have been conceded.”
Regardless, it was agreed between the pair that Robbins would play a part after all, by searching around the docks for some helping hands. He believed he was aiding his friend by covering for his personal deficiencies:
He was not very conversant with dockside life…In many ways I found him to be a bit of an introvert which made it very difficult for him to mix with the many different kinds of men one meets in sailors’ haunts.
(Which – considering Mellows’ past success with making friends in Fianna Éireann and the IRB, and then the Irish Volunteers, to say nothing of his exploits in escaping from England in time for the Rising, and the subsequent flight to America, the latter which saw him surviving the toils of working life on board a ship – seems an unfair statement on Robbins’ part.)
One point of contention was Mellows’ insistence on total secrecy, which was all well and good – until he cited Jim Larkin in particular as someone to keep in the dark. Offended, Robbins asked if this was due to Larkin being a socialist because, if so, Mellows could rule him out as well for he too was one.
A distraught Mellows insisted this was not so, arguing that while he knew naught about socialism, he also had nothing against it, having read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and finding it much to his liking. When Robbins pressed for a reason, Mellows refused to say, only that he would divulge at a later time – which he never did.
With this disagreement pushed to the side, the two men got down to business. Robbins was to remain in New York until he received word that Mellows was en route to Spain, at which point he would return to Ireland and alert their fellow revolutionaries to the incoming weapons.
“However, the arms plan never came to anything,” Robbins admitted.
Robbins later found a reason for Larkin being persona non grata to Clan na Gael: the temperamental ‘Lion of Labour’ had delivered a tongue-lashing to Devoy in the Gaelic American office, accusing him of snobbery in favouring the Irish Volunteers with money while ignoring the more working-class ICA members in America. Larkin may have ruled the ITGWU with an iron fist, but he was not in Ireland anymore and, in Devoy, he met his match as an autocrat.
Not that Robbins spared the curmudgeon much sympathy. Although he had been sent to contact Larkin, Robbins was soon disgusted with his bilious rants and found himself much preferring the company of Devoy. He was amazed at the older man’s intelligence and how “he could foresee developments well in advance of most writers.” Devoy’s austere dedication also impressed Robbins. Instead of the money and fame that Robbins believed Devoy could have earned, he:
…preferred to travel a lonely, torturous and unpopular path for the meagre salary of twenty-five dollars per week, which he regarded as being sufficient to take care of his very simple way of life. His only regard was the advancement and, if possible, the achievement of the freedom of Ireland, and be counted as one who had given service to that cause throughout his whole life.
Robbins was a witness to the extent of Devoy’s influence at a packed Clan na Gael convention in the Central Opera House. After a succession of stirring speeches about the historical fight for Irish freedom had put the audience in the appropriate mood, Devoy implored them for funds with which to carry on that same mission.
This prompted a number of delegates to leap to their feet and compete for the stage to proudly announce the amounts they personally, and the Clan clubs they represented, would be donating.
“They were almost shouting each other down in their anxiety to be heard,” wrote Robbins, awed by the memory.
Others were less impressed by the grizzled Fenian. Sidney Czira (née Gifford, sister-in-law to Joseph Plunkett) complained that Devoy tried to separate the ‘1916 exiles’ into different states. The purported reason was to lessen the risk of police surveillance, which Czira conceded was a concern. But she attributed this policy of Devoy’s less to safety and more to his suspicions.
“He had this extraordinary obsession that there was somebody always interfering or intriguing against him,” she wrote with a sigh.
But, of course, even paranoiacs have enemies. One of whom in Devoy’s case would just happen to be Czira.
About March or April 1917, Robbins received a written invitation to Czira’s apartment in Amsterdam Avenue. When he arrived, he found Mellows and other ‘1916 exiles’ also there. Czira explained the purpose of the meeting: she wanted to replace Clan na Gael, whose leadership she believed was out of touch with the struggle back in Ireland, with a new fraternity, the nucleus of which would be the ‘1916 exiles’.
After some discussion, the guests made their way out. Mellows asked Robbins what he thought. Robbins was blunt: what was the point of undermining their number one patron in a country they knew little about? The only thing this could accomplish was the hurting of their own cause.
Mellows agreed – at least, on the surface. Robbins thought that was the end of the matter – until a new organisation did indeed come into being, the Irish Progressive League.
At its forefront was Czira, who threw herself into the fray of activism, as she described:
We set up a shop, the front part of which was devoted to Irish books, pamphlets, periodicals, postcards, badges and the usual propaganda material. This must have been 1918 because we had in the window a map which we used in the way that war maps were used at this time, by sticking pins with little flags to indicate the constituencies in which Sinn Féin were victorious in the election.
As if this was not enough, Mellows set up a society of his own sometime later, the Irish Citizen’s Association, intended for use as a pressure group on Clan na Gael. Such behaviour would forever be a puzzle to Robbins: “In later years I often asked myself if Liam Mellows was partial to the first project and founder of another. Or was he under the influence of someone else?”
It was inexplicable to Robbins that his friend could act this way after they had agreed on the foolishness of such maverick ventures. Perhaps the answer, Robbins speculated gloomily, lay within their national psyche: “Sometimes I think the Irish have an inbuilt genius for disagreement and disunity.”
Clan na Gael
If the Rising of 1916 had ‘changed, changed utterly’ Ireland, in the words of W.B. Yeats, then the entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 – on the side of Britain, no less – had a similar effect on Irish-America. Outspokenly pro-German before, Clan na Gael was forced to ask itself if keeping to its stance was worth the hostility from the rest of the country, now on the lookout for unpatriotic malcontents within. The answer, as far as Devoy and the rest of the Clan old-guard were concerned, was ‘no’.
Others like Mellows vehemently disagreed. To those who had risked life and liberty in Dublin’s streets or the fields of Galway during Easter Week, suggestions that they now enrol in the American army and fight alongside the same enemy as before were intolerable.
This clash between pragmatism and principles – not the last in Mellows’ life – soon boiled over into public view, such as when a Clan convention on Easter 1917, for the first anniversary of the Rising, was disrupted by audience members loudly objecting when the platform speakers urged them to enlist. So stormy was the mood that hall stewards ordered the protestors to remove their tricolour badges, which was refused.
Though Czira was not present, being at home with her two-month old baby, she heard much about it when many who were disgruntled at the stance the Clan was taking visited her apartment to discuss what should be done. Of particular concern was the agreement between the American and British authorities that the former could conscript British nationals, among which the Irish who were not American citizens had been classified.
In a series of open-air meetings protesting against enlistment, Mellows took the lead, mixing impassioned oratory with cutting humour. With reference to the poster ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ that was plastered about the city, Mellows suggested that an answer should be: “I was tracking around New York the Irish who were trying to obtain their liberty.”
Displeased at this unseemly independence, the Clan na Gael Executive gave Mellows a stark choice: speak no more at such meetings or forget about his Gaelic American job. The man who had disbanded the Galway Volunteers in the face of a hopeless situation only with great reluctance was not going to back down now, and the Clan soon learnt about the sort of enemy its former golden boy could be.
When the first day of a Clan gathering in New York in 1918 passed without any speakers making reference to the ‘German Plot’ – over which a number of arrests had been made in Ireland on allegations of German collusion – there was considerable outrage in the hall. That none of the ‘1916 exiles’ were among those on stage was another cause for resentment.
The second day of the convention came and still not a word was said about the arrests, leading to shouts for Mellows, who was on the premises, to be allowed to speak. Taken to a backroom, Mellows – as he told Czira afterwards – was accused by the Clan bigwigs of being behind the upheaval, which he denied.
As a small compromise, and in the hope of diffusing the tension, Mellows would be allowed on the platform to bow before the audience, but on no condition was he to speak. Of course, as soon as he was on stage, he denounced the arrests and, for added effect, proposed a resolution of protest.
“American papers on the following day commented that although the proceedings were very dull on the first day, they were certainly very lively on the second,” Czira commented dryly.
At least relations between Mellows and Devoy remained cordial, if lacking the same warmth as before. “I fear for the Irish movement in America when the Old Man dies,” Mellows told Robbins in the belief that there was no one who could fill Devoy’s shoes. It was a sentiment he would repeat on numerous occasions, according to Robbins.
Similarly, Devoy continued to hold Mellows in high regard, however personally he took their widening estrangement. A rumour that he had financially neglected Mellows to the point of starvation wounded him, as did the other man’s silence on the issue, which was taken by many to mean an affirmation.
“You know how much I loved Mellows,” he said to Robbins, who had managed to stay on good terms with both. “I loved him as if he had been my own son.”
He said this in the Shelbourne Hotel during his visit to Dublin in 1924. Mellows had been dead for almost two years, put before a firing-squad of his fellow countrymen, but the memory of his failure – or refusal – to dispel the whispers of ill-treatment lingered on as a knife in the old man’s gut.
Mellows caught something of the complexity of their relationship in a letter to Nora Connolly, dated to September 1919:
I broke completely with the Gang. Lots of things happened – more than I can write about and more than was known even among friends. Threatened with expulsion from everything. Told them to do it. They backed down. Resigned from the office at the same time. Was begged to remain by Uncle. Did so.
That Devoy was ‘Uncle’ was telling in the familial choice of word. Despite Mellows agreeing to remain with the Gaelic American, he complained of a “campaign of the most vile and conscious slander” against him.
This toing-and-froing, akin to a fraying marriage, could not last indefinitely. Mellows had been staying in the apartment of Patrick Kirwan, the brother of a leading Irish Volunteer in Wexford, where Mellows’ mother hailed from. Upon his first meeting with Mellows, Kirwan was delighted to learn that they knew many of the same people from Wexford.
The Kirwan home of 73 West 96th Street became a centre for him and his friends. The Kirwans did not seem to mind the constant flow of guests, taking care to make each of them welcome, and Mellows was close enough to the family to stand as godfather to their third son.
After two years of this cosy arrangement, Mellows abruptly left in mid-1919 without warning. The Kirwans found that he had been moving his books out in batches without telling them until the last day. It was only later that they learnt he had relocated to Manhattan’s East Side, the Carmelite School on East 28th Street, where he was employed as an Irish language teacher, having abandoned the Gaelic American for good.
The head of the monastery, Father Peter Magennis, had long been a source of aid for the ‘1916 exiles’. When Czira found it impossible to send letters back home due to the strict censorship, Magennis delivered her correspondence, and that of many others, while he was over in Ireland.
After Mellows collapsed at his first replacement job as a labourer, it was Magennis who had given him the teaching post, a role more suited to his education. His health, until then in a perilous state, began to mend.
Mellows was, according to Robbins, “subject to spells of despondency and was inclined to neglect himself.” When two female friends learnt of his plight, they visited him in the East Side and succeeded in nursing him back to health. It was for this bleak period that Devoy was blamed for starving him. It was an unjust accusation to Robbins’s mind, and Mellows seemed to allude to this misconception in a story he told Czira.
When he was young and sick in bed, he had overheard the doctor attribute his state to malnutrition. Thinking someone was blaming his mother for not feeding him properly, an enraged Mellows tried to rise out of bed and attack the doctor. Still, as Devoy bemoaned to Robbins, Mellows made no effort to correct the impression.
Mellows was still on amiable terms with Devoy when, in mid-1917, Dr Patrick McCartan came to New York and – in keeping with the new tradition for Irish revolutionaries on arrival – visited the Gaelic American offices. Robbins were there with Devoy when Mellows introduced him to the newcomer.
Much like Mellows and Robbins, the thirty-eight year old McCartan had already had a colourful career as an Irish freedom fighter. He had spent time before in America, working as a barman in Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph McGarrity, the leading Clan official in the city.
By 1905, McCartan had returned to Ireland, buoyed by a loan from McGarrity to pursue a medical career, and also to encourage a growth of radical politics in his native Tyrone, a task he fulfilled with enough vigour to be ‘honoured’ in a police report with the accolade of being “the most dangerous man in the county.”
But he was evidently not dangerous enough for some. Despite joining the IRB Supreme Council in July 1915, McCartan was among those side-lined in the planning of the Easter Rising. When the big event came, McCartan was as lost as anyone, and ended Tyrone’s involvement by sending its Volunteers home unbloodied.
After disappearing from the county for some months, McCartan re-emerged in Tyrone at the end of 1916 and was arrested in February 1917, being deported to England along with a number of others. Three months later, he came back to Ireland in time to campaign for Sinn Féin in the South Longford by-election.
“Nothing further was known of his movements until it was announced that he had arrived in America, where he had succeeded in reaching by working his passage as an ordinary seaman,” reported the Irish Times.
Before McCartan had left Ireland, it was decided by the IRB leadership that he would join Mellows on his much-anticipated mission to Germany. Mellows was to handle the purchase of arms while McCartan tended to the political aspect. The duo were allocated some leeway in their plans, depending on circumstances, as McCartan put it:
Mellows and I were left free to do what we thought best on reaching Germany but one or both of us was to accompany the war material, to the arranged spot, on a fixed date. If we could get more than one consignment, either of us was to remain behind to escort the second cargo. Mellows and I were delighted with this plan, for which the Clan undertook to make the arrangements.
There was just one snag: McCartan was an idiot.
Lost and Found
While he talked with the other three in the Gaelic American offices, the subject arose of a certain document that McCartan had left behind on the ship that had brought him over three days earlier. It was a linen document, making a case for Irish independence, addressed to the US President and to Congress, and bearing the signatures of twenty-six individuals from the 1916 Rising. The linen had been specially prepared and starched so that the words could be written in indelible ink, before washed back into a pliable state and then sewn into the lining of McCartan’s waistcoat.
It seemed the perfect cover – until McCartan feared he would be searched on entry to New York. So he left the document on board.
Quite what he had intended to do then was unclear, as was the importance of the document, for during the conversation with the other three, McCartan could not make up his mind on whether it was worth retrieving. Exasperated, Robbins:
…drew Mellows aside and asked him to find out from the doctor if, in fact, the document was important. If it was I undertook to try and obtain it from aboad ship.
When Mellows asked how he intended to do this, Robbins said he would bluff his way through by pretending to be looking for a job. McCartan looked relieved at this plan of action, and so he, Mellows and Robbins left Devoy and went to the West Side where the ships were berthed. Deciding that fortune favours the bold, Robbins pressed ahead:
At the entrance to the docks I walked very smartly in without taking any notice of the guard. As I walked on I heard a voice shout “Halt” but paid no attention. Next there was a rush of feet, a few swear words and I was asked did I want a so-and-so bayonet into me.
Robbins did not. All wide-eyed innocence, he turned to the furious guard, who demanded to see his pass. Robbins tried feigning ignorance as to why a humble job-seeker like him would need such a thing, but when that made no headway with the other man, he spun a sympathy story about how he had missed his ship out due to drink and was in desperate need of another job.
Moved by this tale of woe, but not enough to give way, the watchman asked Robbins if he knew the bosun and, if so, whether he could vouch for him. Robbins confidently said he did but, when the guard left to find the bosun, he knew that the jig was up and retreated to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.
That was not the end of the missing document, for it finally appeared in the possession of Joseph McGarrity. McCartan had visited his old friend in Philadelphia immediately after landing in New York, during which he might have handed the document to him. If so, that was a severe breach of protocol, given that Devoy was the point-man in America for the IRB.
Still, Robbins was not entirely convinced by this explanation:
Having been present at the discussions…with Devoy, Mellows and himself, I formed the opinion that McCartan was genuinely concerned about leaving the document on the ship, and that it was afterwards rescued by contacts made by Devoy.
Another version of how Devoy retrieved the item was by demanding it in person from McGarrity, who instantly surrendered it. When Clan na Gael ruptured into hostile factions, McGaritty and McCartan would side with the anti-Devoy camp, suggesting that it was not coincidental that McCartan gave the presidential letter to McGarrity over Devoy. If so, then Devoy was being far from unreasonable in seeing plots against his authority.
As for the declaration, it was eventually given to President Wilson, though not on the original linen.
“Frank, McCartan would never make a good revolutionary and do you know why?” Devoy asked Robbins one day in the office. When his companion replied he did not, Devoy explained: “Because he can never make up his mind and I attribute that weakness to the fact that he smokes too many cigarettes.”
Robbins took a similarly dim view of the newcomer, albeit for reasons other than a penchant for tobacco, believing him to be a bad influence on Mellows. When Mellows shocked Robbins by questioning the rightness of the Easter Rising, and his accusations that the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Robbins heard the echo of McCartan’s words in Mellows’, and blamed the Tyrone native for filling his friend’s head with such doubts.
In time, Mellows would be similarly unimpressed with McCartan and his unreliability. McCartan “was the only man I could say that Mellows was even bitter against,” recalled Peadar O’Donnell.
For the moment, however, Mellows and McCartan worked closely together, with both becoming regular visitors to Czira’s apartment at Beekman Place. When she happened to mention that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had told her that she had seen off some members of the German embassy, whose time in America were over due to the wartime severance of diplomatic relations, McCartan was surprised. He had been told by Devoy that there were no ships leaving the States.
The next morning, McCartan returned with Mellows in tow. Mellows asked Czira if her German friend knew whether it would be possible for them to take the same route out. That Mellows had come at an unusually early hour indicates how excited – and impatient – he was.
(Mellows kept a loose schedule in general, to the point of being a night-owl. He would think nothing of dropping by Beekman Place, regardless of the hour. Czira remembered how on one occasion Mellows was leaving in the morning and bade the milkman ‘Goodnight’.)
When Czira returned with Haslau’s answer in the affirmative, Mellows and McCartan asked to be put in touch with her, which Czira did. She urged them not to tell any of the Clan elders like Devoy, but McCartan replied it would not be fair to keep the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.
She also questioned the involvement of a Dr von Recklinghausen, a friend of Haslau’s, who handled German propaganda in the States. Czira urged Mellows against bringing him to their gatherings at her apartment, fearing the German was too obvious a target for police surveillance, but he assured her he would be careful not to be seen in von Recklinghausen’s company. She was further alarmed when Mellows took to meeting von Recklinghausen in Haslau’s flat at the other end of the terrace from hers.
For once, she and Devoy were in complete agreement. He warned McCartan that Haslau’s house was under constant watch by the authorities, but the conspirators continued to meet there regardless. Given that Devoy had already been proved wrong about the lack of ships leaving America, there seemed little reason to heed his caution.
Setting in Motion
When Callanan answered Mellows’ summons to see him in New York after Sunday Mass, he found him with several others, including Robbins. Mellows, he noted, appeared distraught. When asked the reason, Mellows, pent-up for too long, laid his cards on the table.
Clan na Gael could no longer be relied on, he said, with the exception of a few allies such as McGarrity in Philadelphia. With no further hope of smuggling arms from America, they were wasting their time here. The only thing left to do was for them to go back to Ireland, while Mellows intended to reach Germany to find aid there.
Callanan and another man present, Donal O’Hannigan, agreed to return home as soon as possible. Meeting Callanan later in the week, Mellows told him that he had a good chance of making it to Germany via a Belgian relief ship that was waiting by the docks. From Belgium, Mellows explained, he could go to Holland and then onwards to his destination.
Mellows explained this plan to Devoy, with McCartan and O’Hannigan present, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That he did so showed that relations between him and Devoy had not yet completely broken down. Indeed, the old Fenian had been busy on Mellows’ behalf, cabling Germany to obtain the password – the not overly imaginative ‘Berlin’ – the others were to use when communicating with German intelligence. When Mellows, McCartan and O’Hannigan were leaving the hotel together, they noticed four men shadowing them, whom they assumed were police agents.
O’Hannigan and Callanan were able to obtain their seamen’s papers without much fuss. The same could not be said for Mellows and McCartan, thanks to the latter’s chronic incompetence.
When the pair went to the Shipping Board, as Mellows related to Robbins, they were questioned about the previous vessels on which they had worked. Which was only to be expected, this being standard practice, but McCartan managed to give the wrong name of his supposed last ship, answering instead with what his seaman’s book said was his second last. He also guessed incorrectly when asked if he had worked as a seaman or a fireman.
The official excused himself for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he stamped their books as being in order. All seemed as it should – except that from then on, Mellows was to complain about a feeling of being constantly monitored. His watchers were less than subtle, such as when the letter box for the Kirwans’ flat – where Mellows was then still living – was broken apart and the opened letters discarded in the hallway, or the stove added to the street corner across from the Kirwans’ apartment to keep the policemen waiting there warm at night.
Czira was surprised when Mellows failed to arrive one evening as he usually did. The next day, with rumours swirling of Mellows’ arrest, she was visited by another of the exiles, a Tipperary man called Michael O’Callaghan. Usually so cheerful, O’Callaghan merely sat there in gloomy silence.
Knowing his volatile reputation – O’Callaghan had fled Ireland after shooting two policeman dead – Czira was afraid to ask anything about Mellows. When O’Callaghan finally left for the night, it was much to her relief. He was arrested almost immediately after, as Czira heard:
He was followed by an American detective and was growing more and more irritated as he walked through the streets, wondering over the fate of Mellows, he suddenly saw in front of him in a shop window a large picture of John Mitchel, grandson of the patriot, who was then running for Mayor of New York and who was an out and out Britisher. (I think there was some pro-British sentiment on the poster.)
This was the last straw as far as O’Callaghan was concerned, and he went up and smashed the window. He was promptly arrested.
When Czira went to Haslau’s flat, she was told by her German friend that she had heard nothing about von Recklinghausen since he and Mellows departed from her house together in the early hours. Haslau then telephoned von Recklinghausen’s apartment, only to be curtly informed by the landlady that not only was he not there, he was not expected back anytime soon.
For he and Mellows had been detained together after leaving Haslau. McCartan was picked up later by the Canadian authorities in Halifax where he was waiting for his outbound ship to be repaired.
While visiting Mellows in Tombs Prison, Robbins was shocked at the noise and confusion. He was led by a warden along a line of half-open cages, to the one where Mellows was waiting with something urgent to say. At first they tried talking in Irish but the din, combined with Robbins’ imperfect grasp of the language, meant that the two men had to switch to English. Even then, the pair had to shout at each other over the babel of voices to understand the little they could.
Robbins left Tombs rather shaken: “It certainly was an experience never to be forgotten.”
Beforehand, while on his way to the prison, Robbins had broken the news of the arrests to Mellows’ friends, such as Nora Connolly, as well as stopping by the Gaelic American offices. Devoy was out of town, so Robbins left a message for him. He did not think anything in particular of Devoy’s absence.
Connolly and another friend, Margaret Skinner, saw Mellows in Tombs later that day and, being more fluent in Irish than Robbins, they were able to discern what Mellows wanted them to know. They then went to the Kirwan house and found behind a picture in the dining-room some papers that the detectives had missed in their search.
‘A Sinn Fein Rebellion’
Nonetheless, the authorities were able to secure a significant cache of paperwork, according to the Irish Times:
A considerable amount of literature and papers, interesting to the American Government, were taken in the raid on Mellowes’s [alternative spelling] and Von Recklinghausen’s premises, but it will be some time before the ramifications of the plot can be thoroughly exposed.
Nonetheless, it was speculated by the New York Times “that the arrests of Mellows and Von Recklinghausen have frustrated a Sinn Fein rebellion, which was planned for next Easter, on the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion.” Whether or not Mellows and his colleagues had had anything quite as ambitious as that in mind is debatable, though the possibility must have been a tempting one.
Also noted was how:
Recklinghausen had been mentioned as an envoy whom Count Bernstorff left here. He is also associated with a group of Turks.
Which made sense, given how Turkey was allied to Germany. According to Czira, however, this supposed Turkish connection came due to a misunderstanding, as a vice-consul for Turkey was living in the flat above her. This entirely innocent diplomat “had made a very bad calculation when he moved into Beehan Place, thinking this was a nice quiet spot!”
Czira, meanwhile, was doing her best, along with Connolly, to help their imprisoned friend. Connolly approached some of the leading Clan na Gael members for help with the bail money, only to be refused. When the two women tried Barney Murphy, the owner of a successful saloon, he listened sympathetically. He was willing to help, he said to them, though he would first have to discuss it with others.
After a couple of days we read in the New York papers that at last somebody put up bail and there was a slightly sarcastic reference to the delay and the unknown person who had come forward.
Murphy, the ‘unknown person’ in question, later told Czira that when he had talked with Judge Daniel Cohalan, a prominent Irish-American politician who was close to Devoy, Cohalan warned him not to get mixed up in ‘this German plot’. Nonetheless, Murphy went ahead and put up the bail money for both Mellows and McCartan, taking care to keep his involvement a secret.
‘Hard, Wretched Days’
Mellows’ case lingered on in legal limbo. Every time he appeared in court, his bail was continued and the case adjourned. With no end in sight by early 1918, Robbins theorised to him that proceedings were being deliberately prolonged by the American Government until the end of the European War, so that it would avoid having to either imprison or deport him, and risk angering its Irish citizens.
The strain wore on his nerves. America was becoming for him a “mild form of purgatory,” he confessed to a friend in August 1918. The plight of Catherine Davis, “a poor Galway woman”, could easily apply to him. He had met her in a New York hospital at her request. Suffering from a heart ailment, she was desperate to hear about her homeland, and her one desire, as Mellows recounted in a letter in January 1919, was to die there. “Her delight was obvious when I answered her salutation in Irish and told her I knew her birthplace well.”
Sometime later, when hearing that Davis was on her deathbed:
[I] called at the hospital…Poor soul! Her one earthly wish will never be gratified. Her days, nay, her very hours are numbered. She didn’t recognise me at first, and then, when she did, was unable to speak: [she] simply held my two hands and repeated time after time, “don’t go.” I stayed with her for about an hour and had to tear myself away. She will never see Ireland again and her heart is broken.
It was a miserable tale that countless immigrants, himself included, could relate to all too well: “To eat their hearts out in exile and to die in the land of the stranger with their thoughts on the land of their love.”
The emotional scars were to stay with him. Even after years had passed, with much that had happened, as Mellows and his companions in the Four Courts awaited the assault by their erstwhile comrades, “he spoke of hard, wretched days in the United States,” wrote Ernie O’Malley.
Mellows would stay Stateside until returning to Ireland in mid-1920 to take up his role in the war against Britain. In the meantime, he remained a fixture on the Irish-American scene, however little he liked it. New York had become a “maelstrom of bitterness and perversity,” where “prejudice is rampant – fierce – unbelievable.”
Still, despite his woes, Mellows never entirely lost his impish sense of humour. Michael Collins would tell a story, one which tickled him considerably, of a performance Mellows delivered during Éamon de Valera’s visit to the United States in 1919. At a large fund-raiser, after some words from de Valera, Devoy, McCartan and Harry Boland, Mellows gave a parody of the speakers before him.
“We collected five hundred thousand pounds for the loan in Dublin. We did. Be Jaysus, we did,” Mellows said in imitation of Boland. He then had to escape the enraged others through a fire escape.
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 46-7
Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)
McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932)
Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?
The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”
If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!
Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.
Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.
“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.
The Plot Thickens
Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:
…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.
Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.
A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.
Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.
What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.
It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.
It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.
Optimism and Comradeship
Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.
At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”
The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”
Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.
Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.
It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.
Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.
Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.
Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.
“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.
“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”
“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”
“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.
“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.
“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.
Na Fianna Éireann
At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”
White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.
The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.
The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).
More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.
The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.
From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.
On the Road
In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:
This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.
When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead!
In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”
Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.
The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.
As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.
A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.
Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.
His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.
Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.
Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.
Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.
But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.
A Meeting in Tuam
The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.
“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”
The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.
“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:
…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.
It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.
“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.
“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.
“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.
Destroying the Evidence
Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.
When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.
According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:
The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.
Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.
This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”
In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.
An Athenry Return
Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.
The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.
When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.
The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.
But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.
When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.
“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”
On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.
As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.
They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.
“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”
These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:
I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.
Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.
Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.
“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.
If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.
Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.
He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.
Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want.We have every confidence in you.
Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.
Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.
Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”
The Search Begins
The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”
All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.
At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.
As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.
When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.
Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.
They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.
The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:
He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.
The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.
After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:
We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.
There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.
Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.
McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.
When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.
With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.
The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.
Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.
As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.
 Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5
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)
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 Go