“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.
The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.
Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.
“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.
But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:
I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.
But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:
The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.
Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.
To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”
On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”
Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.
“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:
But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.
The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”
Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.
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 would 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 audience 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
Thomas Traynor was charged with murder on the 6th April 1921 in Dublin City Hall by a military court. A small, wiry man of about forty with a long, black moustache that gave him a mournful appearance, Traynor had been apprehended at 144 Brunswick Street, the scene of an ambush on a British Army patrol that resulted in the death of two cadets. The fleeing Traynor had been rugby-tackled to the ground by a lieutenant who reported that Traynor had shouted: “God’s sake, shoot me now.” Later he had told another of his captors: “I am only a soldier like yourself.”
Under the rules of the court, Traynor was not entitled to give any evidence or be cross-examined. Not that he had much to say, only that he had been caught up in the fighting while carrying a gun – the same automatic found on him at the scene – to give to someone else. He made no attempt to explain the incriminating remarks attributed to him. All this, and his prior involvement in the Easter Rising of five years ago, ensured his conviction for murder and hanging.
If there was little doubt that Traynor had indeed been involved in the ambush on Brunswick Street, then the case of Patrick Maher could only be described as tragic. He was among those arrested and brought to trial for the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station that saw two policemen killed in the resulting shootout.
Due to an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Breen, one of the participants in the rescue, Maher was picked out of a police line-up. His name had earlier been passed to the authorities by ‘private information’ – in other words, an informant, unusual in itself when such sources of information were fast drying up.
Maher had worked at Cleeves Creamery throughout a strike, the only employee who had done so, and it is probable that his name had been supplied to the police out of spite (he had already been boycotted and threatened). Along with another man convicted of the shootout (probably accurately), Maher was the last man executed during the War of Independence, on the 7th June 1921, four days before the Truce which would have saved him.
These are but two of the cases that illuminate Seán Enright’s study of the revolutionary period in Ireland, with a focus on the War of Independence. Enright flips the usual Hibernian-centric narrative on its head by focusing on the British perspective, making it one of the few works to do so.
Earlier studies such as William Sheehan’s Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 and W.H. Kautt’s Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion, 1919-1921 had also followed such a line, though these focused on the military side of things, the obvious area of study for this turbulent period with its ambushes and assassinations.
Enright eschews this approach by focusing on the use of the legal system by Dublin Castle to try and contain the growing rebellion on its watch. This leads to a quieter, more analytical read than most works, though – as the author demonstrates throughout – not one that is any less dramatic. Enright understands that stories are the building blocks of history, and here we get plenty of them.
This may not appear obvious at first, given a subject material that seems on the surface to be a dry one. Whatever its interest, Enright leaves us in no doubt as to its importance in understanding the conflict. “A unique feature of this revolution,” he writes, “was the extent to which the conflict centred on law and legal institutions which kept the status quo in place.”
The Crown Courts were intended to be instruments of keeping rebellion in check, yet their juries could not be guaranteed to deliver the verdicts that the British Government needed. Partly this was due to Irish Republican Army (IRA) intimidation, and the few witnesses who did come forward risked boycotts and social alienation.
A more direct approach by the IRA was the burning of court houses, with a total of forty-seven destroyed by the spring of 1920. The presiding judge of one ruined court at Borrisokane in County Tipperary, however, proved to be not so easily vanquished, as Enright describes with a fine eye for tragicomedy:
Major Dease, a hefty, old R.M. convened court in the blackened ruins. Major Dease continued to sit session, his white hair plastered to his face by falling rain. The court staff exchanged glances occasionally but no one was brave enough to say anything to the old Major.
In other cases, no coercion was needed, as local authorities switched allegiances to the Dáil Éireann and quickly made their newfound loyalties known. The Roscommon County Council served notice to landlords of court buildings that no rent would be paid for them as their services were no longer required. In Newbridge, County Kildare, the end of the old system came even more abruptly when the resident magistrate arrived one morning to find the front door to his courthouse locked.
Even the few Crown courts that continued to function did so only barely. The last politically-motivated murder trial heard by a jury was in the spring of 1920. What looked like an iron-clad case against the accused for the shooting of a policeman in Tipperary was thrown on its head when it was revealed mid-trial that the main witness for the prosecution had made an original statement that differed considerably from what he had just given.
It was in the wake of such administrative impotence that Winston Churchill urged the rest of the Cabinet to adopt harsher measures. When it emerged during the Cabinet discussion that the Irish Judiciary, still loyal to the principles of open justice, had refused to take on non-jury trials, Churchill quipped: “Get three generals if you cannot get three judges.”
That set the tone for the British response in the latter half of the War, namely the establishment of the military courts and the assigning of the British Army to do what the civilian administration could not.
The first person to be tried for murder under the new system was an 18-year old student, Kevin Barry, for an ambush in Dublin that resulted in three dead soldiers. Despite appeals for clemency, Barry was hanged.
This marked a turning point. Before, IRA defendants could have safely declined to recognise the legitimacy of the toothless courts before them. The possibility of lengthy sentences or even execution made subsequent trials a literal matter of life and death.
Even the Truce of 1921 and the cessation of hostilities did not stop the legal battles, particularly with forty-two men still on death row and over a hundred awaiting trial. Sir Nevil Macready, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Ireland, intended to proceed with the executions of the former and the start processing the latter, but the case of J.J. Egan, convicted by a military court for the possession of ammunition, threatened to throw a spanner in the whole works.
As briskly summarised by Enright:
The primary argument advanced for the prisoner, Egan, can be distilled in a few lines: the Crown had released the prerogative power to wage war in Ireland to Parliament by passing the ROIA [Restoration of Order in Ireland Act] to deal with the Rebellion and therefore only Parliament could embark on new measures. It followed that the whole edifice of martial law was unlawful.
Matters went badly for Macready when the Master of the Rolls ruled that the military courts were indeed unlawful, with a writ for habeas corpus issued for Egan and the prisoner to be produced in court. Macready held his ground and informed his subordinates to ignore the writ, prompting the issuing of a further writ by the Master of the Rolls for the arrests of Macready and two other generals.
Both sides backed down with their writs the following day, with Egan released and Macready out of danger – but with the military courts, the headstone of British strategy, severely compromised in the event of further warfare in Ireland.
As the above story shows, Enright is adept at bringing out some of the more obscure details of the period into the light, leading to a fuller understanding. But research is not the writer’s only talent, displaying at times the ability to capture taunt, at times gripping depictions of otherwise quiet scenes inside a courtroom.
This book appeals to a number of interests: the challenges a liberal democracy faces in confronting a war, one of the least liberal occurrences, in its midst. The weapons that a military regime, as the British state in Ireland essentially was by its end, can use – and have used against it. Brief but evocative pen portraits of the various senior figures in authority. A study of how things fall apart with the centre slowly but surely failing to hold, no matter how much legal chicanery or brute force is applied. It is for this ability to show many things at once that After the Rising deserves to be on the shelf of any serious student of the period.
Imprisonment barely slowed McGarry down. After his release in December 1916 as part of the general amnesty, he was hard at work again with the resurgent republican cause, the immediate goal being to ensure the IRB and the Irish Volunteers remained joined at the hip, and the former in charge.
Which was simple enough: in October 1917, candidates doubling as IRB initiates gained all the seats on the Volunteer Executive at the latter’s Convention, with McGarry as General Secretary and an up-and-coming Michael Collins as Director of Organisation (Collins was first nominated as Secretary but withdrew in favour of the other man).
While the movement was in robust health and McGarry’s role in it a prominent one, he did not always get his own way. In mid-1917, the topic of conversation at Fleming’s Hotel, Gardiner Place, was the impending bye-election in Clare, where Éamon de Valera was planning to contest as a Sinn Féin candidate. Although not strictly an IRB meeting, most of those present in Fleming’s were members.
McGarry protested against the possibility of Eoin MacNeill’s involvement in the election, considering him persona non grata for his attempts to countermand the Rising (he was equally pitiless with another miscreant who had tried to interfere, writing to the disgraced Bulmer Hobson in March 1918 on behalf of the Volunteer Executive for him to return any monies or properties belonging to the Volunteers and submit himself for court-martial).
McGarry was overruled by de Valera, however, who threatened to boycott his own campaign if MacNeill was not permitted.
The two men could not have had more divergent opinions. De Valera had joined the IRB shortly before the Easter Rising upon learning to his shock that his Brotherhood-connected subordinates knew more about the plans for the rebellion than he did. He left soon afterwards and would nurse a distaste for the fraternity.
“Curse secret societies,” de Valera wrote later, adding that he had been tempted several times to take “drastic action” against the IRB but held off for fear of the turmoil that might cause.
A Question of Authority
Sometime before the polling day in Clare, another gathering was held in Limerick by IRB luminaries such as Austin Stack, Seán Ó Muirthile, Thomas Ashe, Ernest Blythe as well as McGarry. Stack asked the others why they were not at their posts in Clare in accordance with their candidate’s orders.
“Who gave de Valera authority to order us about?” McGarry groused. The remark triggered an impromptu discussion on whether or not it was appropriate for the Brotherhood to be involved in political matters. It was the last sort of question that a secret society like the IRB would want aired.
In the end, the others obligingly departed for Clare to assist de Valera except McGarry who made his way back to Dublin in a huff. If McGarry had thought that the new politicians were going to be at the IRB’s beck and call, then he was sorely behind the times.
Given the tension between McGarry and de Valera, it was only fitting that the two men should be thrown together when they were arrested and deported to England in May 1918 along with others as part of the supposed ‘German Plot’. Michael Collins had been on his way to warn McGarry of the impending arrests but arrived too late (a practical man, Collins then stayed the night at McGarry’s house, reasoning that the authorities would be unlikely to return to a place they had already raided).
McGarry had by then risen to become President of the IRB Supreme Council. The historian Leon Ó Broin could not resist noting how two presidents of the Irish Republic had been imprisoned together in Lincoln Prison, de Valera of Dáil Éireann and McGarry due to the IRB constitution proclaiming its head to be de facto that of the Republic (although this is perhaps not an idea that stands up to serious scrutiny).
A Man’s Work, Done by Men
Confinement did not hold either man for long. In the weeks following the well-publicised escape, in February 1919, of McGarry, de Valera and a third man, Seán Milroy, from Lincoln Prison, Harry Boland felt the need to rebut some of the stories that had been circulating.
Speaking to the Evening Herald in his role as Honorary Secretary of the Sinn Féin Executive, Boland dismissed the existence of the ‘Ultra-Irish Society’, a thinly-veiled depiction of Sinn Féin, which was supposedly behind the jailbreak. What particularly jarred him was the rumour that girls had been brought over from Ireland to flirt with the English gaolers as a honeypot distraction.
“We have too much respect for our Irish girls to subject them to such humiliation,” Boland harrumphed. “President de Valera’s rescue was a man’s work and was done by men.”
The real story behind the escape was surreal enough without the need for femme fatale colleens. Michael Lynch, a Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin and a friend of McGarry’s, was visited by Tomasina McGarry, some eight or nine months after her husband was deported.
She had received from him a most puzzling postcard with two pencil sketches of a man whose thin, bespectacled face bore more than a passing resemblance to her husband’s. In one of the cartoons, the gentleman was trying vainly to open a door with a comically oversized key. Beneath, it read: 1917 – can’t get in.The second sketch showed the now despondent fellow sitting in cell before an also-comically oversized keyhole, with the words: 1918 – can’t get out.
“Did you show this to Michel Collins?” asked Lynch, according to his recollections.
“No. Why should I?” she replied.
“I think you had better.”
Collins lost his temper when shown the card, demanding to know why the hell Tomasina had kept it to herself for so long. It turned out that the cartoons were a coded message from the prisoners in Lincoln Prison, covertly asking for a key to be sent over.
Tomasina McGarry could be forgiven for not knowing a code she had not been privy to, especially how mystified everyone else was.
The card had been initially sent to a sympathetic priest in Leeds, minus any actual instructions on what to do with it. The padre took the items to Liam McMahon, a senior member of the IRB in Manchester, but the latter was equally stumped. McMahon at least had the inkling that the card was supposed to convey something, so it was forwarded to Dublin, where it ended up in the possession of Tomasina, although that was not the end of the confusion, as McMahon put it:
I believe they had the same difficulty in Dublin in trying to find anything in them. Eventually, I think Collins tumbled to the fact that there was something in them.
That something was a request from the prisoners for a key. Several were made, based on the drawing in the postcard, and smuggled into Lincoln Prison via cakes (one baked by McMahon’s wife). None of these keys, however, fitted the locks.
Finally, one of the prisoners, Peter de Loughry, was able to duplicate one by unscrewing the lock off the door of the common-room where the inmates were allowed to be unsupervised every afternoon. A skilled craftsman, de Loughry was able to work steadily on his project every day before the lock would be reinserted into the door in time for the guards’ return.
McGarry would wonder at how they ever got away with it, considering how every time the lock was removed from the door its hole was gradually widened until it was ready to fall out. But got away with it they did.
Meanwhile, the rescue team, including Collins and Boland, had come over to England where they were using McMahon’s house in Manchester to plan the operation. McMahon was assigned to secure a taxi and wait with it in Sheffield on the appointed day of the 3rd February. Collins and Boland journeyed to Lincoln Prison with a spare copy of the key de Loughry had made in case anything went amiss – which, in obedience to Murphy’s Law, it did.
The two rescuers approached the door in the prison wall, near the courtyard on the other side where de Valera, McGarry and Milroy were due to come. Collins and Boland waited by the door for a tense while until they heard the muffled sounds of footsteps from the inside. After ascertaining that they had the right men, Collins put his key in the lock and gave it a sharp turn.
The key, much to everyone’s horror, promptly snapped.
Before anyone could panic, de Valera saved the situation by producing his own spare copy which he inserted into the lock, pushing out the broken one. The door swung open and the three absconders padded out in their canvas slippers which they had worn to deaden the noise. Looking back, McGarry was to rue not locking the door behind them for added effect, as that would have made their escape all the more mystifying.
In Sheffield, McMahon was waiting impatiently in his taxi, with frequent glances at his watch, when de Valera, McGarry and Milroy made their appearance. As McMahon drove the three runaways to Manchester, McGarry talked about all the possible ways they could get to Dublin.
In a sign that their time spent locked up together may not have been an easy one, de Valera turned to McGarry and said, in McMahon’s recollections: “Don’t you think the men outside have done very well so far? Why not leave it to them to do the rest?”
That was the end of the chatter, much to McMahon’s relief. His part completed, McMahon last saw McGarry on his way to the train station for Liverpool disguised as a bookie.
The Return Home
McGarry’s return to Dublin was a discreet one without fanfare or fuss. He was able to hide at Lynch’s house on Richmond Road after Collins had dropped by the day before to let the family know the fugitive was coming. Collins did not seem to ask for permission, but Lynch, as a member of the Irish Volunteers, could hardly refuse sanctuary to a fellow freedom-fighter.
What could have been a strained situation in the house, particularly with McGarry unable to step outside for fear of recognition, was elevated by his general good humour. He was fond of jokes and stories, according to Lynch, and was fortunate enough to befriend Lynch’s new wife, who was not above adding to the humour by pranking her guest.
Noting a habit of McGarry’s to overuse the firepoker – at least ten times within half an hour in one sitting – Mrs Lynch sneakily applied a liberal amount of polish to the handle. She then waited as the unsuspecting target prodded at the fireplace as per habit while absentmindedly rubbing his face. Confused as to the gales of laughter from the rest of the household, it was not until he stood up and looked in the mirror that he saw the blackness smeared all over his features.
The victim was not amused, as told by Lynch, somewhat belying what he said about McGarry’s constant geniality: “He chased my wife round and round the table. She saved herself by running down the garden, and all Seán could do was stand at the kitchen door and curse.”
It was not all ‘fun’ and games. Tomasina was unable to see her husband lest she bring unwanted attention. The nearest thing to contact McGarry could have with his three children – Emmet, Sadie and Desmond – was for them to be taken by the family maid for a walk every afternoon, if the weather permitted, to Richmond Road, from where McGarry could peer out for a glimpse of them. However unsatisfying, it was the most he could have.
After first consulting with Collins, it was agreed that enough time had passed for Tomasina to come over. One day, she brought their son, Emmet, who, at the age of three, had only vague memories of his long-absent father. He had been told beforehand they were visiting the doctor and was none the wiser during the course of the surreptitious reunion, until:
[Emmet] crept up on his daddy’s knee, and he told us all, in his little innocent way, that he was a very nice doctor. Then, suddenly, recognition, came into the little kid’s eyes. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and cried out, “You are my daddy!”. It was the most moving scene I ever remember, not only for Seán, but the whole lot of us felt the tears in our eyes.
A chip off the old block at keeping secrets, little Emmet kept his visitations to his father to himself. His twin sister, Sadie, was also brought to the Lynch house; that way, the McGarrys were able to maintain some semblance of overdue family life.
The War Continues
It was almost a month after the jailbreak when Collins had the idea of publicly unveiling McGarry, the chose venue being a public concert at the Mansion House. Posters advertised the presence of a “prominent Republican leader” who would be speaking at the concert but no names or further details were given until the evening of the concert on the 4th March when McGarry marched on stage in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. After a brief speech, the returned hero was bundled out of the building and driven away before the nearby policemen could interfere.
By now a public figure, McGarry entered the arena of politics on behalf of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party. He was already a councillor in Dublin Corporation, having been introduced as such by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House concert. The Corporation had met for a special session a month earlier, in February 1919, to replace a recently departed member. As per the rules, the replacement could be selected by the party of the deceased – in this case the beleaguered Irish Parliamentary Party – but the nominee withdrew in favour of Sinn Féin’s McGarry.
It was a sign of the times that, in the words of historian Pádraig Yeates:
The fact that he was on the run…and that this might hamper him in the discharging his duties as a public representative, does not appear to have been considered an impediment.
Come the start of 1920, McGarry ran as a candidate for alderman in Dublin Corporation, and later as a TD for Dublin Mid in the 1922 general elections, winning both times on a Sinn Féin ticket. It is unclear if he entered politics on his own volition or due to instructions but given his essentially passive nature, the latter seems most likely.
His newfound public role carried its own set of dangers as McGarry, still a man on the run, was obliged to attend council meetings. In December 1922, armed Auxiliaries intruded upon one such session of Dublin Corporation. All those present were questioned, resulting in six of them being taken away in custody.
The officer in charge had called out the list of names present in the roll book. When he came to McGarry, a voice responded: “Not here.” At the same time, Margaret McGarry, another Sinn Féin member of the Council and no relation, remarked: “My name is McGarry, perhaps it is me?”
Whether meant in jest or confusion, she was quickly told to shush by the Lord Mayor. When the Auxiliaries left, it was without McGarry among their catch of prisoners, either because he had left the room in time or had been able to remain undetected inside.
Out of Sight
For the most part, however, McGarry drops out of the historian’s view during the months of the War of Independence. His reticence in revealing too much, either to the Bureau of Military History (preferring to dwell more on his mentor, Tom Clarke, than on himself) or the Military Pensions Board (where he was already assured of a pension, having been in the National Army as a captain during the Civil War), means that it is hard to reconstruct his activities in any great depth.
It is not even clear if he stayed on in Lynch’s house after being ‘outed’ in the Mansion House or if he moved elsewhere. His entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography describes him as being “captain in the IRA Dublin Brigade throughout the war of independence” but no other source supports this.
While imprisoned in Lincoln, he had been replaced as President of the IRB Supreme Council by Harry Boland, and later Collins.A follower rather than a leader, McGarry made no effort to regain his presidency, seemingly content to leave it to Collins. McGarry would serve his successor as he had previously done for Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott.
As part of this, McGarry was sent to Britain sometime in April/May 1921 to touch base with the few isolated Volunteers and the remnants of the IRB there. According to one of those he talked to, the fight for freedom was nearly at the end of its tether in Ireland. If the cause was to be abandoned until the next generation were ready to resume, then the Brotherhood would best be reorganised among the young.  His efforts did not result in any great success. However, the British-based IRB was too much in disarray, and “Sean gave up in despair.”
Speaking to a journalist in 1955, de Valera recalled how McGarry, “whom he did not think much of,” called to see him one day in December 1920 “and spoke to him on authority about should be done,” presumably about the ongoing war with Britain. McGarry had apparently been so circumspect that de Valera did not even realise that his guest had come on behalf of the IRB. De Valera assumed that the other man had come in a private capacity and was “merely…talking big to impress.”
It was only after his visitor was gone that de Valera remembered that he was in the IRB, although the former’s information was out of date as he assumed that McGarry was still its president. Historian Tim Pat Coogan commented that McGarry “was more likely the Brotherhood’s Secretary and certainly a member of the Supreme Council.”
Actually, it is not certain at all if McGarry was still on the Supreme Council or, if not, when he had stopped being so. He was absent at a critical meeting of the IRB Supreme Council – called to discuss the Treaty crisis – on the 19th April 1922, despite the presence there of Michael Collins, Seán Ó Muirthile and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who had each played a role in ‘unveiling’ him at the Mansion House three years ago.
McGarry remained close to Collins, holding a place in the other man’s affections as a living totem of the recent past. During the course of his interviews with the American journalist Hayden Talbot, between December 1921 and the following August, Collins complimented McGarry as “the one man who was closer in the confidence of the leaders of the rising than any other man today” – high praise, indeed, considering the hallowed status of said leaders.
Collins was keen for Talbot to meet McGarry for him to give the inside scoop on the Easter Rising and the Howth Gunrunning, both of which he had been intimately involved. The first scheduled meeting fell through due to the Civil War making the streets of Dublin too dangerous for McGarry to travel through. He was able to make it at the next one on the 2nd August 1922, and dutifully relayed to Talbot what he knew while Collins looked on.
McGarry was the very image of the deferential subordinate, at one point glancing at his Commander-in-Chief for advice on how to answer Talbot’s latest question. Collins did not always reciprocate the courtesy. Thinking that the interview had gone on for too long and it was his turn to speak, he brusquely interrupted McGarry, who took the cue and dutifully left for the night.
In contrast to the relative obscurity of McGarry’s wartime activities, his wife’s are much more accessible. Lacking the military rank of her husband with its guarantee of a pension, Tomasina McGarry was obliged to be more forthcoming in her application to the Military Pensions Board.
In her typed statement in 1945, she told of how during Easter Week 1916 she had delivered letters that her sister had carried from the GPO. Service in the War of Independence in Dublin included her acting as a go-between for Collins and his moles within the DMP. One conveniently lived next door to her and was able to pass on warnings of impending police raids nine or ten times.
Otherwise, her duties were small and infrequent but essential to the smooth maintenance of an underground army, such as finding accommodation for Volunteers when needed, allowing weapons to be stored at her house or, on one occasion, passing on two revolvers purchased by her sister from an enterprising Black-and-Tan.
Tomisina had an impressive list of references. Richard Mulcahy confirmed to the Board that:
She was a close confidante of Michael Collins, and throughout the whole of the post-1916 period of military activity was closely connected with his personal intelligence work. He made a complete use of her services and of her home, for that work, and her services made a considerable contribution to his personal safety.
Others agreed. Gearoíd O’Sullivan described her as “a great one in efficiency and thoroughness,” and how she had stored for Collins papers relating to IRB funding. Leo Henderson told of how she had “rendered great service to the men of the movement; a confidante, conveying messages,” and confirmed a story of him retrieving a gun from its hiding place in her kettle at home (unfortunately, Tomisina was found by the Board to be illegible for a pension).
The Dáil Debates
As a TD, McGarry was entitled to contribute to the debates in the Dáil over whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Speaking on the 3rd January 1922, he began by promising to make a record for brevity. According to some journalists who were present, “he didn’t, but he went so near that we forgave him.”
Considering the not-inconsiderate length of his speech as it appears on the printed page, including interjections by others and his comebacks, all of which apparently took just ten minutes, it can summarised that McGarry spoke very quickly indeed.
With this soon-to-be-broken promise made, he wasted no time in making his choice clear. He supported the ratification of the Treaty with no apology. Shifting from a defensive stance to an offensive one, he proclaimed that he did not wait until he was a member of the present Dáil before becoming a Republican (unlike, presumably, others in the room, though he left any names unstated).
He had worked in the Republican movement for twenty years. He was a Republican that day and he would be a Republican the next, and, as such, he would be voting for the Treaty as it stood:
For that I do not need the opinion of a constitutional lawyer or a constitutional layman or a Webster’s Dictionary or a Bible to tell me what it means. I put on it the interpretation of the ordinary plain man who means what he says. I am not looking for any other interpretation from Webster’s Dictionary or anywhere else. I know what the Treaty means, and the man in the street knows what it means.
This display of impatient insistence could be attributed to the effects of having to listen to – as historian Jason K. Knirck puts it – the previous, seemingly “endless speeches, many of which seemed overly abstract and theoretical.”
McGarry was not the only one to display abstraction fatigue. Speaking on the following day, James Murphy, TD for Louth-Meath, opened with an admission that “not being a constitutional lawyer I do not possess the art of saying nothing in a great many words. Consequently I can relieve the House by assuring it that I will be very brief” (unlike McGarry, Murphy was true to his promise). Shortly afterwards, James Burke, TD for Tipperary Mid, assured his audience, that despite being a lawyer, he was not going to “indulge in a long and laboured dissertation on constitutional law.”
Fencing in the Dáil
Lambasting the naivety of those who had had inflated expectations of what the London talks could achieve, he asked: “What did we think we were sending to Downing Street for? Did any of us think we were going to get an Irish Republic in Downing Street?”
To this, the ardently anti-Treaty Mary MacSwiney piped up: “Of course you could.”
“A Downing Street Republic?” McGarry said incredulously, prompting laughter from the room.
MacSwiney held her ground. “No, a Downing Street withdrawal from Ireland.”
“Downing Street are withdrawing from Ireland.”
“No, they are not.”
Stalemated, McGarry switched on to another tactic: mockery, directed towards the apparent inconsistency in the form of Document No. 2. The brainchild of Éamon de Valera, Document No. 2 was intended as a bridge between the two factions as a slightly rewritten version of the Irish stance during the London talks, with the inclusion of the more acceptable elements of the Treaty to round it off as a compromise.
While it was to be praised by many historians as a “powerful, sophisticated piece of political thought”, the apparent climb-down from a steadfast Republic-and-nothing-but-the-Republic line to a far less glamorous-sounding alternative made the Document an easy target for McGarry to home in on:
Several Deputies protested very strongly and very loudly that they were standing on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. A week before they were standing on the slippery slopes—to borrow a phrase of the Minister of Finance—the slippery slopes of Document No. 2. Document No. 2 was pulled from under their feet and landed them with what must have been an awful jerk on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. They will be standing on that until the proper time—I mean the time when Document No. 2, or perhaps Document No. 3 will be given to us.
“You can have it immediately if you like, whatever your side agrees,” de Valera retorted. It was a fairly nonsensical comeback which made it sound as if he actually had a Document No. 3 at hand, but probably said in the heat of the moment.
McGarry again did not linger, moving onto a different subject and another chink in the Anti-Treatyites’ armour; in this case, their lack of popular support:
There has been theorising in some of the speeches made here by Deputies about Government by the consent of the governed—self-determination. You can have government in Ireland to-day by consent of the governed with this Treaty. You can have self-extermination without it; but you cannot have war without the consent of the Irish people. And the only reason you carried on war for the last two years was because you had the consent of the people.
McGarry accused the opposition of gambling with their belief that for all the talk of resuming the War, they would not have to actually do so. He admitted that he had indulged in a bit of gambling before but, he added wryly, never on a certainty that did not end up leaving him poorer.
To laughter and cries of “hear, hear”, he followed up his punchline with a stinger: “They are quite right, they are not going back to war; they are going back to destruction.”
McGarry finished with a pair of dark quips, the first a quote from the 19th century English writer Charles Lamb about the Chinese man who burnt down his home to roast a pig. The second was a Biblical allusion: “It was Samson who pulled down the pillars of the Temple. That was his funeral. I do not want to attend the funeral of the Irish nation.”
It was on these eerily prescient citations – for him as well as for the country as a whole – that McGarry finished his contribution. It had been a rather ungainly series of points strung together, rather than a smooth narrative with a fixed beginning, middle and end. McGarry may have revealed his weaknesses as an orator that day, but his arguments had at least been impassioned and direct, making it one of the few times this otherwise reticent man expressed himself in public so forcefully.
The Civil War Breaks
McGarry could be pointed in his rhetoric but he was without rancour himself. On the 11th January, he felt the need to write to the Irish Independent in response to a letter published four days earlier from a Margaret McGarry. Her surname had led others to assume they were related. It was a misunderstanding Seán was keen to correct due to her choice of words: “I should be sorry that any relative of mine should refer to Mr. de Valera in the terms contained in the last paragraph of that letter.”
There may have been little love lost between the two alumni of Lincoln Prison but standards had still to be maintained.
McGarry attended the Dáil session on the 9th September 1922, the first since the Treaty split, and added a dash of the martial by appearing in military uniform. Now a commissioned officer in the nascent National Army, he found himself embroiled, like many of his colleagues, in the internecine conflict that was wracking the country.
At one point assigned to a detachment of soldiers guarding the Amiens Street Railway Station, McGarry was forced to cancel an interview with Hayden Talbot that Collins had set up due to the presence of enemy snipers making travel through the city “inadvisable,” as he put it, with admirable deadpan, to Collins in a phone-call from the station.
On the other side of the War was Frank Henderson. A veteran of the Easter Rising like McGarry, Henderson found himself promoted to O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade when his predecessor was arrested. His heart not in the fight, Henderson tried to hold back, even after the first batch of executions of anti-Treaty prisoners in November and the subsequent orders for him to assassinate pro-Treaty politicians. “I didn’t like the order,” he said simply, years later.
McGarry may have owed his life to such reticence, at least according to Henderson, who described him being out and about in town and frequently drunk in Amiens Street (McGarry apparently doing more than just guard duty there), with Henderson having to veto requests from his trigger-happy subordinates to kill him and other vulnerable targets then and there.
Although Henderson did not say whether he had had a role in the fatal shooting of Seán Hales TD that December, the fact that he would for the next sixteen years ask his son to say a mass for the dead man would indicate a guilty conscience.
After the Civil War, Henderson would find himself snubbed by Richard Mulcahy. This was apparently due to Mulcahy holding him responsible for Hales’ death…and perhaps for another, equally dark incident, one where McGarry was not so lucky.
‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’
Tomasina McGarry was upstairs with her three young children at her Dublin home on the 10th December 1922, when there was a knock at the door shortly after 9 am. Startled but suspecting nothing, her mother and sister, who were visiting, went to answer.
Five or six men confronted them. Ignoring the protests that there were children upstairs, the intruders forced the women out into the street at gunpoint and rushed inside. They sprinkled the hall and sitting-room with petrol and set the place alight before running back out. The hall door was slammed behind them, inadvertently locking it and preventing the two McGarry women from re-entering.
Tomasina was oblivious to what was happening on the floor below, only becoming aware that something was very badly wrong when she saw the fire which spread rapidly throughout the house, filling it with noxious smoke.
Between the flames, the door and 7-year-old Sarah’s disabled condition, escape was impossible. All the trapped family could do was to scream out of the window for help. Drawn by the sight of the two frantic women on the pavement, a crowd soon gathered but, as the Irish Times caustically put it: “as is usual on such occasions, suggestions seem to have been more numerous than acts.”
It was only when Sergeant Patrick Smith of the DMP arrived that anything was done. Smith tried and failed to force open the jammed door and had to resort to rushing through the neighbouring house to the backyard. From there, he was able to enter the burning building and, at great personal risk, reached the upstairs room where Tomasina and the three children were huddling together.
Meanwhile, two young men had succeeded where Smith had failed and battered open the front door, dashing up to the sergeant’s assistance. With this collective aid, the family members were removed from their burning home. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the building was too far gone to save and was left a gutted ruin.
Samson in the Temple
Sadie was uninjured and ‘merely’ in severe shock. Tomasina and the other two children, however, had received burns. The mother was driven to Richmond Hospital. She had burns to her hair, face and throat which were painful but not life-threatening. Sarah and nine-year old Emmet had also been scorched on various parts of their bodies. Taken to the Children’s Hospital on Temple Street, their conditions were ascertained as stable.
The attack on the McGarrys was just one of a number headlined by the Irish Times as ‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’, all of which happened almost simultaneously around 9 am. The tobacco shop owned by James J. Walsh, Postmaster-General of the Free State, was broken into by armed men who “went about their business in the customary way” in setting it alight. Walsh had the luck to be out at the time, unlike the McGarrys or Michael MacDunphy, the Acting Secretary to the Free State Government.
As with the McGarrys, the MacDunphy family was home when intruders sprinkled petrol on the floor to set alight. Mrs MacDunphy was at least given the time to rescue her baby from upstairs while her husband phlegmatically asked the intruders for a chance to set his affairs in order before they shot him.
However, the assailants had only arson, not assassination, in mind and made no move to stop MacDunphy from escaping with his family. The fire brigade arrived in time to save the building from complete destruction, unlike those of the McGarrys and Walsh.
Meanwhile, a store belonging to Jennie Wyse Power, a Free State Senator, had homemade grenades thrown through its windows. Despite the milling crowds on the street outside, no one was hurt when the bombs shattered the windows and destroyed most of the shop fittings. Unlike the other incidents, the building did not catch fire, making Wyse Power the luckiest victim of that morning’s orgy of destruction.
De Valera condemned the attack on the McGarry household, albeit not in very strident tones. Writing to a colleague two days later, de Valera drew a distinction between strikes on offices belonging to Free State officials, which were all very well and good, “particularly if these burnings are done effectively,” and those “as that of McGarry’s which were very badly executed” in addition to appearing “mean and petty” – apparently de Valera’s chief concern there.
He might have used stronger words if he was to know the full end result. Despite the initial optimistic diagnosis for the wounded children, Emmet’s condition worsened. Five days after the attack, he died. At the vote of condolences passed by Dublin Corporation on the 18th December, one of the councillors described the occasion as a “most pathetic one”:
There was black shame on the valour of Ireland, which it would take a long time to wipe out. It was not war, but a stupid attempt to intimidate the expression of opinion by public men, and would avail nothing.
The funeral of Emmet McGarry took place that same day. The cortege, large and impressive, left the Children’s Hospital, and was attended by a considerable number of Cabinet Ministers, Dáil Deputies and other notable individuals. His father was able to attend but Tomasina remained in hospital, still bed-stricken from her burns.
Summary of a Career
The career of Seán McGarry as an Irish revolutionary followed the course of the revolution itself, from resistance to responsibility, from triumph to tragedy. Taken under the wing of Tom Clarke as a young man, McGarry was a witness, as well as a participant, to many of the intrigues and manoeuvres that made coups like the Howth Gun-running and the Easter Rising possible. A willing soldier as well as an able conspirator, McGarry spent much of the Rising by Clake’s side in the GPO, narrowly avoiding death on at least one occasion and helping to cover the escape.
He shared the imprisonment of his comrades and, like many of them, threw himself in the Sinn Féin movement upon his release. He continued on in the IRB, though his rise to its presidency and subsequent withdrawal mirrored the revival and waning of that organisation’s influence. One man neither he nor the Brotherhood could control was Éamon de Valera, and not even a spell of jail together could bridge the gap between the two men.
Although by nature low-key and content to be overshadowed by more charismatic men such as Michael Collins, McGarry played a central role in two public events. The first was his dramatic appearance at the Mansion House on March 1919 while still on the run from prison in an event carefully choreographed by Collins. The second was almost three years later in the Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, where he sparred with de Valera and Mary McSwiney.
For all his service to the cause, McGarry was not to be spared the horrors of the subsequent Civil War. As a commissioned officer in the National Army, he was a tempting target for some among the enemy but the good will of others saved him. Such good fortune did not last forever. His family bore the brunt of the conflict when their home was burnt down, resulting in the death of his nine-year old son.
 Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 180 ; Henderson, Frank (BHM / WS 821), p. 17
 Bulmer Hobson Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 13,161/4/1
 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. 42
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. 209. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html (last accessed on 07/12/2016)
 Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006), p. 114
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 250, 256
Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015)
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(last accessed on 07/12/2016)
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)
Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)
Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)
Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006)
Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)
White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)
Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012)
When Patrick Kane sat down to give his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957, he was a man who believed he had little to show for his efforts. He had served as an adjunct in the Carlow IRA Brigade during the War of Independence – no easy task considering the difficulties which faced the brigade and the setbacks that often frustrated the best of its efforts.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chose the losing side and was imprisoned, a misfortune which he had previously been able to avoid. Upon his release in 1924, his employment status was to follow the ebb and flow of Irish party politics. Kane had to resort to working abroad until his return to Ireland, two years after the election of his former Civil War comrades in Fianna Fáil.
For the next twenty years, he was able to work in several Irish industries until he was forced to retire. That a Fine Gael-led government was then in power made it unlikely that he would receive much support besides an inadequate pension, and so Kane faced the fraught prospect of seeking work again at the age of sixty-two. “And so, another of my ideals and ambitions has one down in dust and ashes under my feet” was the bleak verdict on which he closed his Statement.
Anyone looking at the activities of the Carlow Brigade can be prone to a similarly gloomy mood. William Nolan, a rare historian to have approached the subject, admitted that: “Carlow does not have a very active fighting story. This may sometimes have been adverted to by way of implied reproach.” As a counterbalance, Nolan reminded his readers of the leading role Carlow had played in the 1798 Rebellion, as if to reassure them that red blood did indeed run through Carlow veins, after all.
Kane did not bother comforting himself with historical allusions when he retrospectively assessed the difficulties the brigade had faced: the constant flux within the Brigade leadership, the lack of weapons and ammunition, and the unfavourable nature of the local situation towards guerrilla activities, such as the intrusive presence of the Curragh Camp.
Yet the grass is always greener on the other side, in war as with other things, and the difficulties that plagued the Carlow Brigade were not so obvious to its enemy. British captain E. Gerrard was in Carlow at the time of the Truce (or ‘the Armistice’, as he called it, muddling up his wars) and was struck by the level of preparation deemed necessary by the British soldiers stationed there. Every field the soldiers occupied was made into an enclosure by trees they had cut down.
Gerrard could not help but wonder what the rest of the country would be like if such defences were needed for only twenty miles from the Curragh. To Kane, the Curragh was an insurmountable obstacle for the Carlow IRA. To Gerrard, that the IRA could operate at all near the Curragh was enough to make him doubt whether the guerrillas could be defeated.
Organising the Brigade
The use of the name of the ‘Carlow Brigade’ is something of a misnomer. The perimeters that defined the scope of its activities covered considerable chunks out of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, as well as a corridor of land from Laois along the Carlow-Kildare border, meaning that three out of the six battalion areas were outside of Co Carlow.
The battalions and companies were expected to be to a degree self-sufficient. They could not turn to their parent Brigade for resources for the simple reason that there was little to give. At the same time a certain amount of discipline through the battalions was the norm, with Volunteers expected to wait for orders before acting on an idea, even if it had originated from them.
This was generally adhered to, however frustrating: Nan Nolan, a Cumann na mBan captain, was working as a nanny in the house of a retired British army general when her brother in the Ballon company asked her to leave open a window on a prearranged date for him and his colleagues to steal the guns kept inside. By the time official permission for this home-invasion materialised, Nolan had left the job, depriving the company of its inside-woman.
Such policy bred a cautious attitude within the Brigade, discouraging risk that could lead to disaster. That two of the more ambitious attempts – the creation of a flying column, and an ambush on a RIC patrol near Barrowhouse – would result in heavy losses for those involved would serve to justify this conservative approach.
Relations between officers with their colleagues in the Kildare and Wicklow Brigades were cordial – something that could not always be said for relations between different Brigades – and they occasional worked in unison together. An attack on Auxiliaries posted at Inistioge by a Kilkenny battalion was to be assisted by men from the Carlow 4th battalion, though the plan was cancelled just as the main force had assembled. More successfully, Liam Stack, the intelligence officer for the Carlow Brigade, was able to sit in on a Kilkenny IRA military court in relation to a local dispute.
Volunteers recognised early on the urgency of knowing before the enemy knew, the key method of achieving this being control of the mail. Through surreptitious supervision of the post offices and the occasional direct intervention on the flow of mail through the county, Volunteers were able to forewarn other ones of impending arrests, head off leakage from spies, and allow the brigade to keep riding with the enemy punches. Without its members’ skill at information warfare, it is unlikely that the Brigade could have survived long as a functioning military force.
Kane was assigned by his Brigade superiors the task of collecting what information he could. The proactive Kane had himself been elected to the National Executive of the Post Office Clerks’ Association. This gave him the scope to travel and make contacts with sympathetic workers in other post offices around the country, and by early 1920, Kane was part of a cell operating in Carlow post office with access to postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.
Four of them remained active up to the Truce, though the cell was not impregnable. The point-man for passing information onto GHQ in Dublin, Pádraig Conkling, was forced on the run in later 1920 after being threatened with shooting by Black-and-Tans. Another member, Michael Carpenter, was imprisoned in 1921 for being in possession of illegal wire-tapping equipment. His arrest led to raids on the homes of other post office workers including Kane’s, who from then on was frequently held up in the street by suspicious Crown patrols.
Despite these setbacks and the increasingly straitened circumstances, the intelligence work continued on, leading to many a timely tip-off. Sometime in 1921 – conflicting accounts place the date in either mid-April or a few days before the Truce in July – a British army regiment entered Ballon with the aim of arresting the Volunteers in the company there. The wanted men were forewarned in time to stay away from their homes until the regiment and the danger had passed.
However, the Brigade was unable to achieve complete dominance over the flow of information. As part of the same series of raids that had unsuccessfully tried Ballon, British soldiers were able to net several arrests in the area around Rathvilly, indicating that not only did the soldiers know who to look for, but that there had been a failure in the Brigade’s early warning system.
The Burning of the Barracks
The Carlow Brigade had not attempted anything of note until its enemy unexpectedly gave it an opening. As part of a countrywide policy by Dublin Castle to consolidate its police force into fewer, less exposed strongholds, a number of RIC barracks in Carlow were closed in April 1920.
The abandoned buildings were razed by Volunteers when it became clear that their former garrisons would not be returning, giving the battalions their first taste of activity. That empty buildings make the easiest targets was an added bonus.
Even so, the campaign of destruction was not without incident: Richard Barry was badly burnt while helping to burn down Ballon Barracks. Craiguecullen Barracks was adorned by what Patrick Kane described as a “beautiful crest in cut-stone” which became a target for some Volunteers “with more enthusiasm than sense” who triumphantly hacked away at it.
A witness passed on their names in a letter to the police, though Kane, in his capacity at the post-office, was able to intercept the letter an hour later, after which the would-be informant was given twenty-four hours to leave the area. Kane described the culprit as a ‘loyalist’ though they may simply have been attempting to be civic-minded rather than political. Kane himself did not seem to have approved of the wanton vandalism but war was war.
The Police Old and New
The official response was to increase police pressure. In Ballon, for example, the RIC increased their patrols to a daily basis, and were aggressive enough to threaten at gunpoint suspected Volunteers as they left Mass. March 1920 saw the arrival of the Black-and-Tans into Ireland to buttress the RIC with their military experience. They were to earn a dark reputation: in one of many incidents, a group of them robbed a pub after being refused service and drove off threatening to blow the building up next time. Shots were fired over a passing civilian car on the road for good measure.
Similarly, Black-and-Tans caused a scene demanding drink after-hours in a pub in Ballylinan; in the same edition of the newspaper covering this, it was reported that three RIC men had resigned, including one of three years’ service in Athy, with rumours of more to come. The RIC was a decaying force by late 1920, many of its long-standing members sloughing off and replaced by recruits of a very different temperament.
In contrast, the Volunteers were thriving in the duties of an irregular police force even as the official one was forgetting its own. The Athy Battalion became the retrievers of stolen property from bicycles to timber, earning praise from the Carlow Nationalist newspaper for the “excellent manner in which they are protecting the property for the citizens.” An opinion piece in the newspaper went as far as to criticise those who wanted to put “every kind of duty on to a body already overburdened by the honorary duties they have assumed.”
However excellently performed, police work was not what the Brigade had been intended for. September 1920 saw the Brigade finally stepping up its military efforts, albeit with mixed results.
Upon hearing of the Carlow DI visiting Tullow with only a driver to accompany him, a plan was hatched by the Tullow Company of the 3rd battalion to ambush him on his return route, but after two hours of waiting, the ambush team, including Daniel Byrne, was told that their target had prudently returned by a different route.
Byrne was unclear in his Statement as to whether the intent was to kill, kidnap or rob the DI. The Tullow Company was able to launch an actual attack on an RIC patrol later in the month. According to Byrne, who was again involved, this was to rob the constables of their much-needed guns, though historian William Nolan was to claim that it was to kill two “particularly obnoxious” policemen.
The ambushers had been forewarned that the RIC had been beefing up their security as of late, with four-strong units patrolling while armed. The advance party of the ambush also consisted of four men, with some others serving as backup. According to a witness, they numbered fifteen or more. This witness was Sergeant W. H. Warrington who provided a first-hand account of the ambush as part of his testimony at the resulting inquest.
War Comes to Tullow
Warrington had left Tullow Barracks with Constables Patrick Halloran, Timothy Delaney and John Gaughran, the first two at the front with the other pair following, when they encountered the ambush party waiting for them. There was a cry of ‘hands up’ from one of the party while simultaneously a shot was fired at the policemen, either from nerves or intent to kill.
Warrington promptly returned fire with his revolver, and in the resulting firefight, Warrington believed that between twenty and twenty-five shots were fired, the majority by the ambush party. If the ambushers had hoped that the element of surprise would overawe the policemen into surrendering, they were mistaken.
“For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Warrington heard Halloran cry, his arm raised. When that proved futile, Halloran joined in instead with his own revolver. Warrington saw Delaney collapse, and one of the ambushers fall, rose and fell again, indicating a wound. The attackers retreated while Warrington and Halloran hurried to the safety of their barracks, from where they were reinforced by more of their colleagues.
Gaughan was found dead, his undergarments soaked in blood, in a nearby house where he had gone for cover before haemorrhaging to death from an abdomen wound. Delaney had died where he had fallen. Both revolvers of the slain men were found not to have been discharged and had remained fully loaded. Rumour was that one of the slain policemen had been in the last week of his job, having given in his resignation.
Further proof of the “mischances of guerrilla warfare,” as William Nolan put it, was how the two dead men had been well-respected and liked, even by the Volunteers, while the intended targets had escaped with only minor injuries, a view supported by Nan Nolan, who remembered some of the shooters saying afterwards that the wrong men had been shot (although she was personally unsympathetic due to a earlier bout of comparatively mild questioning in the street by Constable Delaney).
A Hornet’s Nest
Byrne did not say whether the ambush party had taken the guns from the slain constables and thus could have something to show for their botched robbery, if robbery had been the primary motive. The resulting hornets’ nest astir may have made the ambush more trouble than it was worth. Two shops were burnt down in the middle of the night as a reprisal. Tullow residents heard a rifle crack, almost as if it was a signal, followed by a volley of about ten rounds in succession.
Then there was a bomb explosion, and the shop of the Murphy Brothers burst into flames, followed by the shop of William Murphy and Sons further up the road. The fire threatened to consume the rest of the street, despite the best efforts of a team of people using buckets of water, until the Carlow Fire Brigade arrived with fifty Volunteers in tow. Realising that the burning shops were lost causes, the Fire Brigade focused on containing the fire, operating the hose while the Volunteers pumped the water from the river.
Once the fires had finally died down and the damage could be assessed, it was found that in addition to the fire-gutted shops, another store had been robbed of £100 worth of goods. The damage to Tullow was more than just material: rumours of further reprisals drove almost two-thirds of the population to seek refuge in surrounding villages or country houses, making the following Friday fair the smallest on record.
Numerous arrests by the RIC and British army followed, with suspects stripped to see if they had any wounds to indicate recent combat. Byrne threatened with a gun in his mouth by two constables before being released but forced to go on the run two days later upon hearing that he was still a wanted man. That was the effective end of Byrne’s time as an active combatant, for he remained a fugitive until the Treaty ten months later, and the rest of his Statement after the telling of his flight is brief.
Fortune Favours the Bold?
The early months of 1921 saw another surge in Brigade activities. A flying column was formed which would be free to move through the territories of the different battalions, with the equipment necessary to take the fight to the enemy. On the 21st of April, however, the column was surprised by a Crown patrol and quickly overwhelmed with virtually all of its members captured.
Shortly afterwards, on 16th of May, an RIC patrol of four constables and a sergeant were fired at while cycling towards Barrowhouse, Co Laois, the territory of the 5th battalion. No one in that battalion would submit a Statement to the BMH, and all that Kane knew of it was that two Volunteers had been killed in what he described as a “badly sited ambush”, so we are dependent on the contemporary reporting of the Carlow Nationalist, which drew on the official reports from Dublin Castle and on what local people had heard.
Upon the first shots, the RIC patrol dismounted from their bicycles and returned fire. By the time Crown reinforcements arrived, the ambushers had been driven back, leaving behind two of their own: James Lacey and William Connor. From the nature of their wounds, death was judged to have been near instantaneous, Lacey having had a wound to his side, and Connor in the neck. Of the RIC patrol, one man had been wounded.
A number of weapons discarded by the fleeing ambushers were also found on the scene. The official version of events reported the number of ambushers to have been twenty, but people in the vicinity judged them to have been five to seven based on the noise of the guns heard.
The local mood was described by the CarlowNationalist as having been one of consternation, as well it might. Shortly afterwards, a group of ten men, undoubtedly of the Crown forces, with their faces hidden under capes, descended on Barrowhouse, interrogating members of the Lynch family as to the identities of the ambush party, before burning down their home along with a Sinn Féin hall. That another Crown patrol would arrive later to ask for descriptions of the men involved would suggest that it had been an unauthorised action, unlike the one in Tullow the year before, where the DI displayed a marked disinterest in investigating.
The bodies of Lacey and Connor were released to their families for burial, leading the Nationalist to comment on the coincidences of two men who had been of the same age (26) and born on the same day, baptised on the same day, killed on the same day and were finally to be buried on the same day. The 5th battalion may have previously won praise for its honorary police work, but as a guerrilla force it had been a miserable failure.
Both the formation of the flying column and the ambush on a decently-sized RIC patrol were risky gambits by the Brigade which showed an increasing confidence and a desire to accomplish as much as possible. However, their failures showed the dangers of pitting enthusiastic amateurs against trained soldiers, with the price paid in blood and lost weaponry.
More successful for the Brigade were its lower-level forms of harassment. Blocking roads by felling trees across the road or damaging bridges was ideal in that it disrupted enemy patrols while avoiding dangerous contact with them. The men of the 3rd battalion were proficient at this type of work, managing one or two blockages a week, after learning when and where a Crown patrol was due to come by to maximise the frustration. Such activities were not always without consequences – the destruction of the bridge at Rathmore led to a big round-up and the arrest of a company captain – but it was preferable to the death or injury that a more direct form of warfare risked.
Raids on mail trains or postmen during their rounds occurred throughout the early months of 1921 and up to the Truce, with authorities seemingly helpless to stop it. Such raids were done to check for any letters reporting to the RIC, with the bonus of police codes being found from one robbery. Often the mail would simply not be returned; in other cases, the letters would be returned after certain parts had been censored and marked ‘passed by the IRA’, helping to reinforce the sense that the guerrillas were one step ahead of anyone, whether the authorities or the public.
The RIC barracks remained a presence as long as their garrisons did. Outside their walls the Carlow Volunteers could be brazen, such as when a military truck waiting outside Carlow Barracks was hijacked and found burnt elsewhere. But while attacks were planned on various barracks, none were carried out. Considering the past times the Brigade had bitten off more than it could chew, that was probably just as well for it.
Attacks on RIC personnel continued, preferably if they could be caught alone and by surprise. Even so, the targets had an inconvenient tendency to shoot back.
Sergeant Boyle was shot on the 23rd of March, 1921, while riding his bicycle back to Carlow Barracks from his residence in Graiguecullen. Boyle was hit twice, high in the back and in his left jaw under the eye, and while Kane believed that it was the wearing of a chain waistcoat that saved Boyle’s life, this armour obviously would have done nothing about the latter injury.
The wounded Boyle was able to fire back, driving off his attackers, and upon being found by sympathetic passer-bys, was transferred to Dublin Military Hospital where, so the Nationalist assured its readers, he had “every hope of a speedy recovery.” Sergeant Boyle was still alive by the time Kane submitted his BMH Statement in 1957, a tribute to either the skills of the Military Hospital doctors, the precaution of a chain waistcoat or the hardiness of Boyle.
A month later, thirty-year old Constable James Duffy, a Black-and-Tan, was walking with a friend, Harry James, when they were ambushed by three gunmen who had been waiting in a hedge. Two of them fired at Duffy, indicating that he was the primary target despite him being dressed in civilian attire, while the other fired at James, who fled despite receiving two wounds on his shoulder and hip. Duffy’s body was found to have been ridden with bullets, including one that had been fired under the chin at close-range, his assassins having left nothing to chance.
A son of a well-known horse-dealer, Duffy had served four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War for which he had been decorated. The shooting occurred in the territory of the 1st battalion, during the time when the flying column was encamped in the same area, so the attack can be attributed to either of these two groups.
According to Kane, Duffy was shot because he was investigating the area, using James as his spy, while the fact that the two men had been returning from a pub when attacked would suggest that the relationship between the two was a social one – two ideas that are, of course, not mutually exclusive.
The last attempt by the Brigade to strike a blow before the Truce was the shooting and wounding of Sergeant Farrell in Borris, June 1921. The task was assigned to John Hynes, the tough, hands-on Vice O/C of the 4th battalion. Farrell had been on the GHQ’s ‘black list’ for some time, as he was reputed to have been part of the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain of Cork.
Hynes received his orders on Friday evening, giving him time to assess that the best opportunity for an attempt on Farrell’s life was in the morning when he left the improvised RIC barracks at the Protestant school, where he slept, for breakfast at his home in town. Hynes selected three men to accompany him as part of the hit squad. They were only just getting into position behind a wall when Farrell came into sight.
Hynes fired at Farrell, prompting the sergeant to shoot back before running into the cover of the wall and back towards the barracks. Farrell made to the barracks’ gate before collapsing in the road from his wounds. The ambush team retreated at that stage, either because the rest of the barracks’ garrison was returning fire at this point, according to Hynes, or because of the number of people who were heading to Mass made a clear shot too difficult (according to a second-hand account). Farrell was put on a motor car by his colleagues to the hospital where he recovered.
Tough at the Top
The other casualty of the Farrell shooting was the position of the 1st Battalion O/C Pierce Murphy. He was demoted by GHQ for his “conscientious objections” in refusing to give orders to shoot Farrell, an awkward virtue in a guerrilla leader.
The Carlow Brigade had a high turnover of its officers, either from insufficient aggression as with Murphy, internal politics (Patrick Kane believed Brigade O/C Eamon Malone had been retired following the Truce for not being a “complaisant yes-man”) or the ever-present danger of arrest.
The last point was illustrated when the 3rd battalion O/C Michael Keating had to go on the run following the slayings of Constables Delaney and Gaughran. Keating left his Vice O/C William Donohue as the replacement O/C and promoting Matthew Cullen to Vice O/C accordingly. Both Donohue and Cullen were arrested a month later, forcing another round of rapid promotions to cover them. Little wonder, then, that Kane thought dimly of the quality of the officers left by the time the Truce came.
In reviewing the Carlow parishes of Ballon and Myshall during the War of Independence, Nan Nolan felt confident enough to assert that: “Other people and places may have been lucky enough to get better headlines, but any man in Ireland who had been through these two parishes during the four glorious years spoke only the best of them.”
As an example of this, Nan Nolan related how the Ballow Company blockaded the village due to the arrival of over a hundred British soldiers in June 1921. The Volunteers were mobilised at night, and did not retire home in the early hours of the morning until all the roads had been blocked with timber and the bridges destroyed, denying entrance to Ballon by anything bigger than a bicycle. It was an undeniably impressive feat on the part of the Ballon Company in the swiftness, thoroughness and secrecy of its operation.
However, it is also important to note that the blockade was done after the British convoy had already left Ballow. There was no suggestion at even a consideration to confront the enemy head-on. Going by the records of other units, it is hard to imagine any such attempt resulting in anything other than a bloody loss for the Brigade.
So there is more than a touch of the ridiculous to Nolan’s suggestion that the lack of fame for Carlow compared to that for other counties during this period can be attributed to opportune headlines. Nowhere was there anything to match the more dramatic actions undertaken by the likes of the Cork or Dublin Brigades, and nothing comparable to the Kilmichael Ambush, Crossbarry, the burning of the Customs House or Bloody Sunday.
Yet, by the time of the Truce, the Carlow Brigade was still a functioning force. How well it would have continued to be so is a debatable issue: Nolan’s optimistic take can be contrasted with Patrick Kane’s shock at the quality of the remaining officers. The Brigade had fought small, and when it had tried to fight big it had lost badly. But it had fought all the same, from the start of the War to the end, and in the most important area of accomplishment, it could boast of equal status to all the others: it had survived.
The 24th January 1922 was a quiet Tuesday for the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, what with it being a half-holiday and almost all business closed for the day. An exception was the Hibernian Bank and even that was nearing its closing time of 3 pm when three armed men entered.
With one of the new arrivals standing by the doorway with his revolver and the second holding the staff at gunpoint, the third entered the manager’s office where an accountant had been talking with a customer. After cutting the telephone connection, the third intruder demanded the keys to the strong-room, only to be told by the accountant that the keys were with the manager who was away.
Frustrated, the raider left the office and proceeded to the teller’s box which he quickly cleared of its contents. Having seized the most they could get, the robbers left the bank and drove out of Mullingar with their ill-gotten gains.
Despite the severed telephone connection, the bank staff were able to quickly call for assistance. Lorries with members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) inside drove down Mullingar at top speed in pursuit. For many onlookers, this was the first indication that something amiss had occurred. Both the RIC and the Irish Republican (IR) police, enemies united in common purpose, were soon scouring the outlying roads for any trace of the fugitives.
It had been, reported the Westmeath Guardian newspaper, a misdeed of a “particularly cool and daring nature.”
The Mullingar raid had not been an isolated event. A second Hibernian Bank branch was hit on the same day, this time the one in Dublin, Thomas Street. Unlike that in Mullingar, this heist was no hurried affair. A single man entered the bank, arousing no suspicion from staff who assumed he was another customer.
After waiting for an opportune moment, the scout gave a signal for a group of nine or ten men to swiftly enter the building in single file. “Hands up,” called the first man as he and his colleagues pulled out revolvers and herded the staff and customers into the manager’s room. The two tellers were then brought out and ordered to give up the keys to the cash drawers. A robber went so far as to put his gun to the face of one of the tellers and threaten to shoot if he did not do as he was told.
After the bank premises were thoroughly searched, the raiders made their getaway, also by motorcar, with as much money as they could lay their hands on. It was not the first heist that had occurred in Dublin since the Truce of the year before, but it had been one of the biggest.
The next day, Co. Westmeath, again saw another bank raid, this time against the Ulster Bank in Delvin. This one was slightly more complicated than the other two from the day before. The robbers entered the bank at 2 am and abducted the manager who was presumably working late.
The kidnappers drove their captive some five miles away to the residence of the bank cashier. After he had been threatened into handing over his keys to the safe, the robbers drove back to Delvin, re-entered the bank and helped themselves to the contents of the safe.
The only trace found of the three robberies was the motorcar used in the Mullingar one. It had been abandoned in a laneway about six miles from Dundalk, having been stolen from its owner in Lisburn. The near simultaneousness of the heists and the distance travelled by at least some of their perpetrators indicated that they had been more than local affairs.
Law and Order
Exacerbating the situation was the near absence of policing. This was not necessarily due to the lack of policemen. In February, Mullingar found itself playing host to around 600 members of the RIC from various counties in the soon-to-be Free State, who arrived to take up residence in the town’s military barracks.
They were not there to help, however, but to await disbandment as per terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The local publicans, it was noted wryly, were not doing at all badly by the new arrivals, but that would do nothing to deter the rising rate of crime.
Mullingar, in the opinion of the Westmeath Guardian in February, was one of the most backward towns in Ireland regarding law enforcement. The newspaper was sure that the IR Police, formed from the local Irish Republican Army (IRA), were doing their best but they alone could not solve the matter. Mullingar had no excuse; after all, smaller towns than it were organising their lawmen into patrols and placing guards by banks. That Mullingar was not following suit left it a wide open target.
A crime surge at the start of April showed how little had been done. On a single day, two motorcars were stolen in Mullingar, one at gunpoint, with another two unsuccessful attempts. Vehicles were not the only prized acquisitions. A lorry leaving Mullingar with demobilised RIC men was held up and the firearms and ammunition seized.
“The incident,” according to the Westmeath Guardian, “created much excitement in the vicinity at the time.” 
As well it might. These crimes were symptomatic, not just of the disintegration of law and order but of the growing tensions between the two factions split over the signing of the Treaty, for the robberies were not simply the works of a lawless element. There were those who believed they would have use of such firearms before the question was resolved.
‘The Interests of the Nation’
Speaking in Mullingar Cathedral at the first Mass of 1922, the Most Reverend Dr Laurence Gaughran, Lord Bishop of Meath, asked his congregation to pray for the ratification of the recently signed Treaty. In this, the Bishop could claim to be reflecting the views of many in the area.
The day after the sermon, the fifteen members of the Westmeath County Council met to deliberate on the matter. After half an hour, a resolution in favour of the Treaty was drawn up for discussion. Their elected representatives were urged to support the ratification when the time came in the Dáil; at this point, a slight edge entered the tone of the text:
In passing the resolution, which, we believe, expresses the desire of the vast majority of the people of Westmeath, with whom we are, perhaps, in more intimate touch than the Dail representatives of the country, we have at heart only the interests of the nation. 
It is unsurprising that the Council would feel estranged from, and suspicious of, their representatives. After all, two of the four TDs for Longford-Westmeath had been largely absent during the past few years, with Laurence Ginnell abroad in the United States and South America, and Seán Mac Eoin busying himself with the guerrilla war in Co. Longford before his imprisonment.
As it turned out, the anti-Treaty Ginnell was absent for the Treaty vote and with the other three – Mac Eoin, Lorcan Robbins and Joseph McGuinness – voting for the Treaty, the Council need not have worried.
Chaos or Creation
The Council resolution had been proposed by Seán O’Hurley, the one-time O/C of the Athlone IRA Brigade who had stepped down to focus on the political aspect of the burgeoning Republican movement. Described by a contemporary as a “terrific worker” with “great skill and energy”, O’Hurley wore his heart on his sleeve where the Treaty was concerned. It would, he said, provide Ireland with the power to reach a full and independent Republic. To reject the Treaty would lead to chaos, while to accept it meant creation.
A few of his colleagues were less enthusiastic. While saying he was in favour of the resolution, H.R. O’Brien objected to how the press was trying to stampede the people into acceptance as he saw it. A second man, M. O’Reilly, proposed an amendment, seconded by another, Gavin, reaffirming allegiance to the Dáil Éireann but otherwise take no further action. When this amendment was ruled out, O’Reilly, Gavin and a third councilman left the room.
The rest of the Council had no such reticence. J. Lyons said that he had been instructed by the workers of Moate to vote for the resolution of ratification; while it is impossible to verify this claim, it does indicate – if true – that the favouritism towards the Treaty was more than a top-down decision on the part of the Council. With obvious enthusiasm, P.J. Weymes told of how every other council in Ireland had declared in favour, while P. Brett chimed in with how international recognition would secure absolute independence for Ireland.
And it was with these sentiments that the resolution for the ratification of the Treaty was passed. It had not been an uncontentious decision but considering the abuse Westmeath had endured in the past year, perhaps there was no other way it could have gone.
The War in Westmeath
For two and a half years, from January 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, Ireland had suffered war and occupation. Soldiers had patrolled in armoured cars while guerrillas hid behind hedgerows or around street corners. Bodies had been found bullet-ridden, killed for one reason or another.
At the start of January 1921, James Blagriffe, a labourer and ex-serviceman in the British Army, was abducted near Athlone. His corpse was found in a kneeling position with the hands clasped and a placard around the neck with the word ‘Spy’. The surrounding ground had been ploughed up by bullets, suggesting a hurried and haphazard execution.
Statements in the Bureau of Military History would confirm that Blagriffe had been murdered by the IRA, although the label of spy was a misnomer – he had been planning to join the RIC which, with his local knowledge, would have made him too big of a liability.
In the same week, armed men in civilian clothes entered the Coosan district, also near Athlone, and unsuccessfully tried to burn down a house after forcing out the occupants. Another home was threatened if the owner did not reveal the whereabouts of his sons, although the assailants later withdrew empty-handed. The identity of the would-be arsonists is unknown, though it seems likely that they were British soldiers or Crown policemen in mufti, seeking reprisals and IRA men on the run.
Public administration suffered, with the results all too evident. The streets of Mullingar accumulated a layer of filth, mud and manure, particularly in Dominick Street after the cattle-markets held there due to the lack of maintenance. Public lighting dimmed, the ignited gas in the lamps being of such poor quality that it was barely worth venturing out at night.
‘This New Phase in the Irish Situation’
But running parallel to the battles, barbarity and squalor, there had been occasions for good cheer and festivity. Men from the East Yorkshire detachment were on their way from Carrick-on-Shannon to their headquarters in Mullingar when they came across a torchlight procession for the New Year celebrations of 1921.
Soldiers and civilians joined hands and danced to the music of the accompanying band while hearty cheers and good wishes were exchanged. The Suffolk Regiment who arrived to replace the Yorkshiremen “looked on in astonishment from their barracks in the courthouse, and seemed unable to understand this new phase in the Irish situation.”
The situation entered a new stage upon the Truce in July of the same year. So great was the relief that the fighting had ended, at least for a while, that civilians and members of the Crown forces participated together in an impromptu swimming contest in the Shannon on the 12th, only a day after the Truce had come into effect. Crowds of both sexes danced and sang before a huge bonfire, and a procession marched through Athlone to the tune of Irish songs.
Even those who had been shooting at each other days before were caught up in the euphoria. A squad of soldiers in a lorry chanced upon a group of Volunteers from the IRA. As soon as they saw the lorry, the Volunteers stood to attention and saluted their adversaries who returned the gesture. Soon both parties were waving handkerchiefs at the other as they passed on by.
Equally affable was the gradual withdrawal of the British garrisons. The last of the feared Black-and-Tans stationed in Mullingar had left by the end of January-February 1922, leaving the regular soldiers and policemen to say their farewells to the local people they had been stationed with.
On the 3rd February, a concert was held in the Mullingar Military Barracks as a tribute to the departing Royal Sussex Regiment. In honour of the event, several pieces of verse by a budding wordsmith were published in the Westmeath Guardian:
They’d a concert for soldiers at the Barracks Tuesday night,
And sure as I’m a living soul, it was a lovely sight.
There were ladies, there were gentry, there were even RIC,
There were officers and soldiers and children on the knee.
The concert room was smallish, t’wasn’t gaudy, but ‘twas neat,
And the music that they gave us there you wouldn’t quickly beat,
For I’ve been with the Army to stations near and far,
But I’ve never had such fun before as I’ve had at Mullingar.
One could debate the quality of the poetry but it captures the general ambience well enough.
As if not to be outdone, a ceilidh was organised in the Mullingar County Hall for those who had been imprisoned during the past troubles. Four hundred people were estimated to have attended, making it one of the most successful events of such a kind ever held in the town.
The Handing of the Barracks
The goodwill continued with the handover of the various police and army barracks to the new military authorities. The one in Mullingar was occupied on the 13th February by the IRA under the command of James Maguire, the O/C of the Mullingar Brigade since mid-1920. The move was purely formal as the IRA was due to move out to make room for the RIC members from around the midlands who were awaiting disbandment. The officer in charge of the old police force until then, District Inspector Harrington, called on the editors of the local newspapers to assure their readers that the reoccupation was to be temporary and for there to be no misunderstandings.
Otherwise, the handovers continued. Castlepollard Barracks was surrendered to a company of forty Volunteers, again led by Maguire. The O/C must have wondered at the turn of fortune, for he had led a brief and unsuccessful assault on the same barracks a few hours before the Truce was due to take effect the previous year. Now, a tricolour was hoisted from the chimney of the building to the rousing cheer of the assembled crowd.
Maguire and the other Volunteers were not the only ones taking advantage of opportunities. HUGE PURCHASE OF MILITARY STORES AT BARGAIN PRICES, so read the advertisement in the papers for Nooney & Son, Mullingar. Among the goods the store had recently purchased were barbed wire, fencing stakes and barrack room tables.
For all the good fortune, danger still lurked. A small boy picked up a detonator from the deserted Castlepollard Barracks and brought it home to his mother. The woman was unwisely inspecting the strange object when it exploded, stripping the flesh off a finger and thumb and part of her palm.
It was to prevent further accidents that the Volunteers destroyed the military munitions left behind in the Mullingar Military Barracks. A lake on a nearby estate was selected for this purpose, and large amounts of bullets and bombs were taken there by lorry and dumped in.
On the 29th March, more equipment in the form of Vesey rockets, gun cotton, bombs and the like were thrown into a trench dug in the yard of Mullingar Barracks and set ablaze. Unfortunately, the handlers had not taken into account the effect of fire on explosives and no one had warned the townspeople who were surprised and terrified by the sudden explosions that shook their houses and lit the evening sky.
While the stray armaments had at least been put beyond use, the hope that the future would be a peaceful one would be revealed as being overly optimistic.
The latter half of April 1922 saw Mullingar become a divided town as more soldiers from both factions on the Treaty divide were brought in by lorry on a daily basis. The Free State soldiers were in possession of the Military Barracks and the Post Office, with their Republican counterparts quartered in the County Buildings, New Technical School and the Police Barracks. Mullingar increasingly resembled an armed camp.
Local traders felt the pressure keenly as their goods, particularly food, cooking utensils and clothing, were commandeered. The anti-Treaty IRA appeared to have been the worse, with reports of them venturing out of town to steal livestock. They did not have things entirely their way. On the 25th April, two of them were arrested by Free Staters on the corner of Earl Street while a crowd of spectators looked on. The prisoners did not go quietly, managing to let off a couple of shots before they were subdued.
If the Free Staters had been attempting to restore some semblance of order, then it was a case of too little, too late. On the same day, half a dozen post offices in villages near Mullingar, such as Moyvore, Tang and others, were robbed of their money. The multiple raids coincided with the seizing of six Free Staters who were careless enough to be caught unarmed while in a barber’s shop.
The inhabitants of Mullingar were roughly awakened on the Thursday morning of the 27th April, a little before 6 am, by the sounds of machine guns and rifle-fire. An alteration of some kind broke out which escalated into shots being fired. Alerted by the commotion, reinforcements from both sides rushed to the scene, prompting another shootout, this time with the addition of a machine-gun brought along by the Free Staters. The skirmish continued for half an hour before a priest, the Rev. J. Kelly, braved the scene and succeeded in appealing to the combatants to withdraw.
Two men on either side had been killed in the exchange. Pools of blood were left in Dominick Street, Mary Street and Bishop’s Gate Street, but it was the first that had borne the brunt of the battle. Bullet holes scarred the walls and the windows of several houses had been broken.
Several shops in town only opened around midday when peace had been thoroughly restored, the warring sides having returned to their own quarters. Desultory shots were heard in Earl Street and Blackhall Street but with no further causalities reported.
Not taking any chances, Free State troops threw up a barricade of iron gates, water barrels and carts across Patrick Street, blocking all traffic through there for a considerable amount of time. Shoppers in Mullingar also erred on the side of caution, with the cattle-fair cancelled for the day and the remaining markets only sparsely attended.
Mullingar Police Barracks
Despite the lack of a clear winner from the fighting, the Anti-Treatyites were sufficiently unnerved to abandon their bases in the Police Barracks, Courthouse, County Hall and Technical School, taking their food and bedding with them in the night.
One of those buildings, however, did not survive the following week. At around 8:30 pm on the 3rd May, a large explosion tore through the Police Barracks, followed by black, heavy smoke emerging from the windows and roof. A portion of the wall had been blown out and the resulting fire threatened to spread to the rest of the street.
The burning barracks presented a fearsome sight, described by the Westmeath Guardian as towering “high above the town, and the streets all round were illuminated by the flames leaping from the roof, windows and doorways of the barracks.”
The fire brigade sprang into action and, assisted by Free State troops and the staff of the nearby Post Office, they were able to use their hoses in containing and then extinguishing the inferno. The barracks, described as “one of the largest and most modern of its kind in the provinces,” was left a gutted shell that continued to smoulder for days after.
The Westmeath Guardian gave no indication as to the culprits. Years later, however, the veteran Republican Con Casey related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how it had been him and another man who had set the explosives in the barracks. Had the Anti-Treatyites stood their ground in Mullingar instead of withdrawing, Casey mused, the Civil War might have begun earlier there instead of at the Four Courts.
“Let him have it”
Subsequent inquiries attempted to flesh out the events of the battle, during which it emerged there had been two separate flashpoints that day. At the hearing into the death of the Free State soldier held a day afterwards, his commanding officer, Captain Conlon, told of how he had dispatched some of his company under Captain Casey to the Police Barracks that morning, their aim to secure the release of their six colleagues kidnapped in a barber’s shop two days before.
Casey confirmed this, and continued the account. As he approached the enemy-held barracks with his men at his back, he saw the heads of those inside through the windows and heard a voice call out: “Let him have it.”
“It is alright, don’t fire,” Casey had replied to no avail.
The men in the barracks opened fire, accompanied by some others who were behind a lorry parked nearby. The Free Staters hurriedly retreated, at which point Casey met with Patrick Columb, the company adjutant.
“I am wounded, but it doesn’t matter, we will fight it out,” Columb had bravely said, according to Casey’s recollections.
Columb was found later in a house in Mary Street and in considerable pain from a gunshot wound. He was taken to the Mullingar Barracks where he died. The fatal bullet was found in the back of Columb’s shoulder, having passed through the covering of the left chest to emerge on the right side, close to the spinal column.
The inspecting medic concluded that the shot had been made at close range judging from the slight scorching on the skin. Although the perforated lung would alone have been grievous, the official cause of death was ruled to have been internal bleeding.
Casey emphasised how there had been no shooting until the Anti-Treatyites started it. The jury returned with a verdict of wilful murder in the case of Columb by person or persons unknown. As that had been the verdict asked for by the solicitor for the military authorities, the Free State Army could be reasonably satisfied with it.
The inquiry into the other fatality – that of Joseph Leavy on the anti-Treaty side – did not go as smoothly, at least not at first, being adjoined for a month due to the jury not being convinced there was enough evidence to show how the deceased had received his wounds. The hearing reconvened on the 16th May, this time featuring testimony from Anti-Treatyites who had been taken prisoner during the battle.
Walter Walsh told of how, on the morning of the 27th April, he and some other men, including the late Leavy, had been delivering bedding to their comrades in the Police Barracks. Having finished, the men were being driven back in a lorry and were at the head of Mary Street when they were halted by Free State soldiers and told to put up their hands, which they did. Then they were ordered to put aside their arms and come out of the lorry.
After the passengers had done so, the driver had had second thoughts and put the lorry in reverse. The Free Staters responded by opening fire on the lorry, out of which the driver leapt and ran away. The remaining Anti-Treatyites were marched down Mary Street with their hands above their heads. When they had turned at the corner of Dominick Street, they were fired upon from the Post Office with rifles and a machine-gun.
The prisoners fled to shelter by the sides of the houses. Lying flat on the ground, Walsh saw Leavy fall and lie motionless. When the firing had ceased, the Anti-Treatyites were once again rounded up and taken to the front of the Post Office, where they were searched and then transferred to the military barracks.
Questions (and Answers?)
Several questions were asked from the jury:
Q: How many soldiers were guarding you?
Walsh: About a party of fifty men.
Q: Did the guards make any attempt to stop the firing?
Walsh: I did not hear any order to cease firing. We were all disarmed when we came into Dominick Street. There was no reason whatever for fire being opened.
To another question, Walsh replied: “I could not say if there was firing from the back.”
Another witness, Laurence Gibbon, was sworn in and corroborated what Walsh had said:
Q: There were no shots fired from behind?
Gibbon: Not as far as I could see. I could not see what stopped the firing. Free State troops ran for shelter as well.
Q: Did they prevent you taking shelter?
Gibbon: No. They did not tell us to take shelter.
One of the jurors was visibly disgusted: “They drove them into an ambush and then took shelter themselves.”
The third witness, James Nally, confirmed that there had been no firing when the prisoners entered Dominick Street and that, in his opinion, they had been fired upon.
Q: Was it deliberately or accidently you were fired upon?
Nally: I could not say, sir. The firing in Mary Street was not accidental. I cannot say was the guard under fire, but they were before us and behind us.
After ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a damning verdict: Leavy had met his death from bullet wounds while a prisoner with hands up and unarmed. Unsatisfied with how things stood, the jury called for yet another inquiry to finally determine what had happened that day in Mullingar.
A further hearing was thus set for the 19th May in Mullingar, to be attended by representatives from both the pro and anti-Treaty factions; however, the event fell through due to the absence of anyone from the former.
The delayed inquest finally took place on the 1st June at University College, Dublin, this time attended by men from both sides. The hearing mostly reiterated what had been said at earlier ones. It was not even clear which of the two main incidents – the shooting outside the Police Barracks and Patrick Colum’s death or the capture of the Anti-Treatyites in the lorry and Joseph Leavy’s shooting – occurred first or to the extent that they were connected.
While the exact chronology and causes must remain obscured by the fog of war, the basic facts were all too clear: the situation in Mullingar, with its armed bands and rampant lawlessness, had been bad before it worsened, and that of Ireland as a whole was unlikely to improve before it too intensified.
From the 1936 interview with Seán Robbins, former quartermaster of the 2nd Offaly Brigade:
Q. Our view about Clara Barracks is – whether we are right or wrong – that it was a major engagement for some and not a major engagement for others?
Q. A man that was in the mill, how would he be situated?
S.R. That was one of the most dangerous positions.
Q. Was he in the actual fight?
S.R. Yes. And William’s house on the opposite side was dangerous.
Q. Was that the Sergeant’s house?
S.R. The sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.
Q. Was that William’s house?
S.R. William’s house was the opposite side, the mill was in front of the barracks and the sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.
Q. It would have been a bad place?
S.R. It was. As a matter of fact there were two or three men lost there, two wounded and one died. Two mained [sic] and one seriously wounded.
Record of the RIC
On the night of 2nd June 1920, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks in Clara, Co. Offaly (then King’s County), was the target of a coordinated assault by several local companies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The attack had been well-planned with a shrewd understanding in how to isolate a target beforehand and an array of sophisticated, if unsubtle, techniques against a fortified position.
The RIC, on the other hand, was finding itself to be an antiquated institution and one ill-prepared for the rigours of confronting a guerrilla war. The burden of pacifying the unruly country increasingly fell upon the shoulders of the British Army regiments stationed in Ireland.
In assessing the state of the RIC by May 1920, an internal review of the Army’s performance during the Irish Troubles, Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921 (drafted in 1922), found that its ally had:
…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.
While not unsympathetic to the plight of the besieged police force, Record pointed to the excess of elderly timeservers in its ranks, men whose primary interest was their forthcoming pensions. To survive, the RIC would need recruits with the strength and vigour of youth.
Such fresh blood was to be found and would quickly taint the name of the RIC with their own: the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. It was a policy that would go horribly right but, in May 1920, no one amongst the British forces could deny that the police were in dire need of an overhaul:
In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, though no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their military training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle…hand and rifle grenades, rockets and Verey light signals, and in the defence arrangements of their barracks.
The RIC barracks were a particularly weak link in the Crown chain. Many were in unsuitable positions, having not been built to defend against an organised assault. The one on Clara Barracks was singled out by Record as an example of such an attack and a demonstration of the tactics used by the IRA.
Clara Barrack stood in the middle of the town as a small two-storied stone building with a slate roof and steel shutters over its windows. At one end, it adjoined a large flour-mill and at the other were the quarters of Sergeant Somers’ wife and children.
Somers manned the building with an addition of eight armed constables. It made a formidable target, one that required the men of the Clara, Tullamore, Rahan, Streamstown and Ballycomber companies to come out in full force.
At midnight, the tramp of marching feet could be heard through the streets of Clara. Volunteers had already been assigned to various tasks such as stealing tins of petrol from a nearby garage, cutting telephone wires or felling trees across all roads leading to the town. Reinforcements to the beleaguered barracks would not be coming quickly, if at all.
In addition, the barracks in the nearby village of Geashill was attacked. The fight there lasted for less than an hour and the only causalities it caused were smashed windows but it had succeeded in its primary aim as a feint.
In Clara, the door to the Somers’ family quarters was kicked in. With a touch of chivalry, the wife and children of the Sergeant were taken to the safety of the post office. At the same time, the windows of William’s shop in the main street, opposite the barracks, were smashed in by rifle-butts as men took up position. There, the men barricaded the top windows as best they could with mattresses, furniture and anything else at hand. The mill at the end of the barracks was likewise occupied.
Strength in Numbers?
Despite the relative finesse of the operation, it was Seán Robbins’ opinion that the IRA’s superiority in numbers had also been a hindrance:
Q. You can see the trouble about Clara Barracks attack. There was a lot of men in the attack on Clara that were not in dangerous positions?
S.R. That is what happened there were too many men there. The Brigade Commandant mobilised too many. He mobilised the first and second battalion of Offaly I and also portion of Offaly II took part. That is what happened the men were on top of one another.
The numbers of the Volunteers involved is uncertain. Two contemporary newspaper accounts reported numbers of 300 and 100-200. Though Record believed the 300 estimate an exaggerated one, Robbins also judged the participants to have been up to that same number, making it the most likely.
Inhabitants of Clara and nearby towns such as Birr were awoken that night by the sounds of gunshots and lightning-like flashes. The latter were from the Verey flare guns that the RIC garrison were sending up to call for aid. They made a striking impression on Seán O’Neill, one of the participants in the attack, as he later described:
While we were in the yard showers of multi-coloured verey lights came down on top of us. When the verey lights were fired they went right into the air like a star, then spread out like miniature fiery balls of many brilliant colours.
Despite such eye-catching splendour being visible all the way to Birr, the garrison was on its own. From their positions in William’s shop and the mill, the Volunteers kept up a hail of fire on the barracks with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Despite several calls to surrender, the besieged police responded vigorously with their own guns through the apertures of the steel shutters covering the windows.
In order to break the stalemate, those IRA men in the Somers’ family quarters and the mill attempted to break through the adjoining walls to the barracks. Posted to the rear of the building, O’Neill could hear the sledgehammers and crowbars at work in the Sergeant’s house whenever there was a lull in the fighting.
At this point, the two main sources for the attack – Record and O’Neill – diverge (though otherwise they are notably congruent). In the former, the assailants in the Somers’ home were able to use explosives to blow a hole through the wall into the first floor of the barracks and behind where a constable was busy firing from a window. The quick-witted policeman was able to throw several bombs through the sudden hole, throwing his enemy into disarray. The IRA mole team in the mill, on the other hand, failed in their own efforts to break through to the barracks.
O’Neill’s version, however, has it that it was the Volunteers in the mill who succeeded in blasting through. O’Neill says nothing about the success of the Volunteers in the Sergeant’s quarters, only that they were able to let off an explosion in the wall which apparently went nowhere.
One of the Volunteers in the mill, Martin Fleming – in O’Neill’s account – shouted though the gaping hole for the defendants to surrender. Fatalities at this stage in the War of Independence had been relatively light, and the intent of the Clara attackers seems to have been to secure the barracks with the least bloodshed possible; otherwise, they could have thrown bombs through the hole in the wall as soon as they could. Fleming received for his troubles a bomb of the RIC’s own which almost blew his arm off.
With the attack stalled and dawn starting to break, the Volunteers decided by 3 am to retreat. They had suffered two other causalities besides Fleming, both while posted in William’s shop: Patrick Seery from a bullet to the chest and Ned Brennan in the hip. It was not surprising that Robbins would remember that position as a dangerous one.
O’Neill remembered Robbins helping Seery to a priest’s house to be anointed, the prognosis clearly a grim one. O’Neill, for his part, assisted in taking Fleming and Brennan to the same priest, an experience that was to haunt him:
It was not a pleasant scene in view of the failure to take the barracks to see the footpath strewn with the blood of our men. I shall not easily forget the condition of Seery who had a large hole in his chest and Fleming whose hand, from above the wrist, was almost completely severed.
It was not until 5:30 am that Tullamore Barracks received news of the attack, and 6:30 when army reinforcements arrived in Clara, by which time the attackers were long gone.
Despite their failure to capture the barracks, the Volunteers had at least been able to isolate it, perhaps a little too well: the Birr-Roscrea train was delayed that morning by almost two and a half hours due to tampered wires, and a motorist from Mullingar crashed his car against a tree across the road. Unharmed, the driver and his passenger made the rest of the journey to Athlone by foot.
Record proudly recorded what the enemy had had to abandon in their haste to depart: “One rifle, a shot gun, several bombs, articles of clothing, full tins of petrol and a sprayer.” It was a good indicator of the armoury the Offaly IRA had at its disposal.
The Westmeath Guardian told of the blood found on the scene as well as a cap with a bullet-hole found in the peak, testifying to the intensity of the fight. Another newspaper, TheLeinster Chronicle, was pithier: left behind on the scene had been a “considerable quantity of arms, petrol and blood.”
The RIC garrison had suffered no causalities. Of the IRA, Brennan and Fleming survived their injuries, though the latter lost his arm and wore an artificial one in later years.
Seery, however, lingered on before dying in September while at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. He was 31 years old. His funeral in his native district of Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath, was a grand affair and a show of strength by his comrades. Thousands of Volunteers from the Offaly and Mullingar battalions joined the mile-long funeral procession, marching two deep while keeping time with the Tullamore Pipers’ Band.
Upon reaching the cemetery, the tricolour-draped coffin was borne on the shoulders of Volunteers, and a military salute was fired over the grave. The farewell did not go entirely without a hitch. A member of the firing party was impressed by his revolver’s lack of kick, saying that he had never fired a finer gun. On closer inspection, it transpired that the revolver had not fired at all due to dud ammunition, not that anyone had noticed at the time.
While reporting on the funeral, the Westmeath Guardian neglected to mention the cause of death. The Leinster Chronicle, bolder or better informed, said that the deceased had perished from wounds received from the police, though it did not link him specifically to the attack on Clara Barracks four months ago.
Those Left Behind
In death, Seery was indisputably a hero. His surviving family would not find thing so simple. In 1924, two of his siblings, Joseph and Jane, made separate claims to the new Free State government for compensation for their brother’s death.
The officer who initially investigated the claims on behalf of the Army Pensions Board came back with a strong recommendation for them to be accepted. In addition to being one of the first IRA men killed in the War of Independence, Seery had been “held in the highest esteem in his Brigade, and his death was a big loss” to his comrades.
The loss to his bereaved kinsfolk was also keenly felt, according to the investigating officer. As Patrick had been the chief breadwinner of the family, his surviving three siblings were in dire straits, not to mention poor health, without him and their father, who had died of shattered nerves three years after his son.
Eschewing subtlety altogether, the investigator appealed for the healing of Civil War divisions: “payment of a pension would enhance the reputation of the Government in an area where it has not too many friends.”
Unimpressed, the Army Pensions Board complained that the initial report on the Seery family’s affairs had been contradictory and padded with hearsay. A follow-up investigation found that the family’s finances were in considerably better health than they had let on. They had not been dependant on Patrick’s earnings and none of his siblings were incapacitated through poor health. Consequently, both claims were rejected.
A later claim by a second sister, Anne, in 1934, and a second attempt by Joseph Seery were likewise turned down due to their claims of dependency being unproven. Patrick Seery may have died for a free Ireland but not necessarily a credulous one.
The Crown Response
Less than a fortnight after Seery’s funeral, Somers, now Head Constable, applied to the Tullamore Quarter Session Court for compensation. The interior of his family’s quarters had been wrecked by the fighting four months ago, and furniture of good and expensive quality reduced to matchwood. Judge Fleming – any relation to Martin Fleming unknown – regarded Somers’ request for £120 as moderate compared to those claimed elsewhere from barrack attacks and generously amended the amount to £150 before awarding it.
Head Constable Somers was not the only one who benefitted from the successful defence of Clara Barracks. The RIC victory there had, in the professional opinion of Record, helped raise the morale of the beleaguered police force. It also sharpened the military response of the British authorities, showing them the weak spots that needed to be strengthened:
The RIC to be concentrated in larger garrisons than before.
Directive boards to be set up at all military look-out posts, and the firing of alarm signals from neighbouring barracks to be practised.
Instructions in the care and firing of rockets and other alarm signals to be offered to soldiers and RIC.
Barracks in obviously untenable positions to be evacuated.
Military lorries to carry equipment that would help clear roadblocks, road trenches or damaged bridges, such as cross-cut saws, hawsers and temporary bridging equipment.
Record claimed that the repulse of the attack also had a depressing effect on the local IRA. If that was so, then there were no signs of it. Clara Barracks did not last long after its successful defence. It was one of the outposts evacuated by its garrison, and was promptly razed by the vengeful Volunteers.
Unintentionally undermining its own optimistic take on the situation after the Clara Barracks defence, Record listed the Clara-Tullamore as one of the “bad districts” due to the lack of Crown forces there. Regardless of its defeat, the Offaly IRA had been given free rein. One side was undefeated but it was the other who had won.