Sparks Among the Embers: The Battle of Pettigo and Belleek, May-June 1922

‘Difficult and Delicate’

It was not certain if the fighting that broke out near the village of Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, at the end of May 1922 – and which would spread to nearby Pettigo in Co. Donegal – was a last exchange in the past war or the opening of a new one. Actually, many things were unclear, as reports from the ground differed from each other on various points, but enough could be glimpsed through the fog of war for the Irish Times to inform its readers how:

Following the sending of reinforcements to Belleek by the Northern [Irish] Government, there was a conflict between the ‘Specials’ and a large party of civilians on the railway line, near Castlecaldwell [Co. Fermanagh], in Northern territory. Both sides opened fire simultaneously, and an engagement, which lasted for twenty minutes, followed.

The newspaper was being perhaps a bit literal in its terminology as the ‘civilians’ in question were, if not quite professional soldiers, at least combatants from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Five had been reported killed (with emphasis on ‘reported’ for the total tally of fatalities would fall short of that), with no losses by the ‘Specials’, the armed policemen of the Ulster Special Constabulary who had been sparring with the IRA for the past few months over the newly laid Border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. By itself the violence was nothing new or even unusual, but what made this skirmish dangerously noteworthy was the escalation that followed, when a police convoy of a Lancia car and three Crossley tenders ventured over their side of the Border on the Sunday evening of the 28th May.

Ulster Special Constabulary riding a Lancia armoured car

Once in Free State territory, the policemen found themselves under attack:

The driver of the Lancia car was shot dead, and his vehicle turned into the ditch. The ‘Specials’ took cover, and, having returned the fire, they managed to escape, but they had to abandon the three motor cars.

Now occupied by IRA forces, the hitherto unremarkable village of Belleek was rapidly becoming a flashpoint for war. But it was the city of Derry – or Londonderry if one prefers – where the danger was most keenly felt, at least by the worthy representatives in the House of Commons who barraged Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, with questions, each seeking to prise a little more sense out of the situation. Did he have any information, asked Major Boyd Carpenter, on the alleged massing of the ‘Sinn Féin forces’ on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier, and was the Government taking any precautions for the defence of Londonderry, dangerously exposed as it was to this threatened incursion?

The ‘Sinn Féin forces’ – IRA men

If Carpenter was hoping for reassurance, then he was to be disappointed, for Churchill had little to offer save confessed ignorance and bland platitudes:

I have no information beyond what I have seen in the newspapers about the alleged massing of Sinn Fein forces and many motor vehicles on the Donegal borders of Derry, but the Government of Northern Ireland and the Military Commander-in-Chief on the spot may be trusted to take whatever measures are necessary.

NPG x122829; Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun by Bassano
Ronald McNeill, MP for Canterbury

This only stirred rather than soothed the gathered Members of Parliament (MPs). Ronald McNeill inquired if these measures included action against those on the Free State side of the Border, after which Colonel Ashley wanted to know if the British Commander-in-Chief of Northern Ireland was instructed to support the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland without first checking with the British Government. Churchill did his best to stonewall these queries by giving the broadest of answers with the minimum of detail: any Border-crossing by His Majesty’s forces would be a matter of consideration by the Cabinet. As for the Commander-in-Chief, General Cameron could indeed act unilaterally, assuming it was on the Northern Irish side of the border.

When pressed by Captain Craig on the likelihood of the Border being crossed by Irish forces, whether IRA or by the Free State, Churchill could only reply, with a touch of exasperation: “I cannot give an exhaustive account of the subjects which the Cabinet has taken into consideration.”

Winston Churchill

Even Churchill’s promise that the situation would be discussed with Michael Collins and the rest of the Free State leadership scarcely mollified his audience. On the contrary, Captain Charles Craig sounded positively incredulous at the implication of what the other man had just said.

Craig: Are we to understand that these important matters have not been dealt with in the conference with Mr Collins and his colleagues?

Churchill: I am not prepared to say what portion of the difficult and delicate questions of the Irish situation have been discussed between the British representatives and of the Irish Government.[1]

‘A Festering Sore’

In fairness to Churchill, it was too long and strange a tale to easily explain.

Sir Nevil Macready

Even as Crown and Irish personnel exchanged bullets outside Belleek, the birthday of King George V was being observed elsewhere in the country by a military review in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, the first such event since 1914. While it was almost certain to be the last, given the withdrawal of British forces as per the Treaty, it was still a fine display: cavalry and artillery on the right of the line, with infantry on the left, and the music bands taking up the centre. After an hour of the standard military maneuvers, General Sir Nevil Macready, Commanding-in-Chief of the forces in Ireland, stood by as the various units – the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the 14th Leicestershire Regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 24th Infantry Brigade and others – marched past for his inspection, each displaying their regimental colours.[2]

Although a seasoned professional, Macready could not help but be moved by the sight, particularly of the old pensioners from the Royal Hospital, adorned in their medals, and the boys of the Royal Hibernian School, their red tunics adding a dash of colour to the otherwise khaki formations: two time-honoured institutions Macready guessed would not survive the passing of the old order for very long.[3]

British soldiers in 1922, preparing to evacuate from Dublin

But Macready had little time for melancholy. News of the latest trouble did not surprise him overly; for all his disdain of everything Irish, a feeling nurtured from years of trying to untangle the politics of the place, he was perceptive enough to grasp the potential for trouble at the Border, “a festering sore in the relations between the two parts of Ireland,” as he put it.

The area around Pettigo and Belleek in particular:

…is one of the geographical anomalies of the border link between Northern and Southern Ireland. A triangle some sixteen miles at the base, and seven from base to apex, it is cut off on the south by Lough Erne and the River Erne from the rest of County Fermanagh to which it belongs, and in order to enter it either from the North by the railway or main road, or from the direction of Garrison in the South, it is necessary to cross into Donegal for short distances, which in itself will always be sufficient to start trouble.

As if that was not enough, “a few snipers on this hill could effectually prevent any movement in the village.”

Pettigo map
Map of the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, from the Belfast News-Letter (10 June 1922)

From the reports Macready received, “a few armed scallywags on the Pettigoe [alternative spelling] Triangle” were exploiting this small but strategically significant position. Macready assumed that the rascals in question were of the anti-Treaty IRA, which was at least easy to understand; after all, the Anti-Treatyites rejected the new rapprochement between Ireland and Britain, determined as they were to resume the previous war. But what made things trickier was how the Free State authorities, who were supposed to be as opposed to the Anti-Treatyites as the Anti-Treatyites were to the Free State, “were not too happy because they knew that men whom they claimed as their adherents were not entirely unconnected with all the trouble on the border” or so Macready suspected.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government and its de facto decision-maker, exemplified this slipperiness in Macready’s view, being “a thorough Irishman” in having “lots of arguments that the fault was not his,” an effect mollified somewhat by the ironic twinkle in the eye. The British general did give Collins credit for taking “no offence at having things put plainly before him” and the Corkonian had been equally direct with Macready for the past few months.

What he wanted, what he needed, were two things, Collins told Macready repeatedly: barracks and guns. With British forces withdrawing out of the former, Collins wanted his partisans to replace them before the Anti-Treatyites could. Guns were also a critical factor in the unbalanced Irish equitation, of which Republicans currently had the advantage, but Collins believed if he was given more, thousands would be signing up in support of the Free State.

“Eventually Collins received all the arms he asked for. It would be interesting to know the number of rifles, revolvers and machine guns now scattered about Ireland,” Macready later wrote. “The result would, I think, be startling.”[4]

If only Macready had known…

Mauser pistol, owned by IRA man Vinnie Byrne (now in the National Museum of Ireland)

The Army of the North?

One morning, back in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw several small vans passing by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust of the road. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now were carrying a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[5]

Similarly perplexed was Todd Andrews, one of the garrison members at the anti-Treaty command post in the Four Courts, Dublin. While busying himself with clerical work, Andrews became aware of the lorries swapping weapons between the Four Courts and the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. Why, Andrews did not know. He saw no paperwork relating to the oddity and heard only rumours:

It transpired that our arms were intended for an ‘Army of the North’ to be created by combining pro and anti-Treaty forces with the object of mounting an attack on the recently formed Six County regime…Collins and [Liam] Lynch were the originators of the idea of an Army of the North. The exchange of arms was designed to prevent the identification of weapons which had been supplied by the British to the Provisional Government in the event of capture.[6]

Liam Lynch

Though Andrews had no other first-hand encounters with this clandestine ploy, Seán Lehane and Florence O’Donoghue did. As well as guns, Liam Lynch, as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, would be sending men like Lehane, a Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, who was appointed O/C of this dispatch force. Andrews told of the ‘Army of the North’ in his 1979 memoir, but Lehane had done so earlier in March 1935, as part of his application to the Military Service Pensions Board. The information Lehane provided would not have been available to the general public at the time of Andrews’ autobiography but what Lehane wrote matched that of Andrews in regard to the need for secrecy on Collins’ part:

Both parties – Republican [anti-Treaty] and Free State forces – were to co-operate in giving us arms and supplies, but General Collins insisted on one thing, that activities were to be in the name of the IRA [as opposed to the Free State], and that we were to get arms – rifles – from Cork No. 1 Brigade and that we would return rifles instead to Cork 1 from those rifles handed over by the British. The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifle fell into the hands of the British.[7]

Florence O’Donoghue

Unlike Lehane, O’Donoghue was not among those selected for this mission. He was, however, a close confidant of Lynch and, as his former commander’s biographer, O’Donoghue would write in detail about the Chief of Staff’s actions at this crucial time. O’Donoghue had considerable respect for Collin as well and, to him, this secret pact between the two leaders represented:

…a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.[8]

Which may indeed have been true. But instructions given to Lehane by Lynch hint at how the parties involved were not being entirely forthright with each other, for all the talk of brotherhood bonds and shared desires.

Lehane and the rest of the expedition force were to:

…to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].[9]

In other words: to start the War of Independence all over again. This would suit Lynch and the rest of the Republicans perfectly, wrecking as it would the Treaty beyond repair; the Free Staters, not so much, since they were only intending to fight the British where they still were in Ireland, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. If Collins was pulling the wool over Macready’s eyes, then Lynch seems to have been intending to do the same to Collins.

‘You Are Our Enemies’

Joe Sweeney

That is, if we take the above sources at face value and assume Collins was entirely committed to the whole ‘Army of the North’ plan. Andrews, Lehane and O’Donoghue were all Anti-Treatyites, while no contributions have been made on the subject by Free State voices. The closest historians have is Joe Sweeney, the O/C of the pro-Treaty Donegal IRA, and his attitude towards the Anti-Treatyites in his territory was notably frigid.

“We thought Joe Sweeny and Co. would support us,” remembered one.[10]

They thought wrong. Sweeney had no problems sending revolvers and drill purpose rifles over the Border to Derry, even if the latter type were of doubtful quality as even he admitted. After all, Derry was out of his jurisdiction and thus someone else’s problem. When “Collins asked me what I thought of the prospect of a fight in the North when I handed over the drill purpose rifles,” Sweeney was not against the idea per se, but told Collins: “I wouldn’t take any joy in it nor would I send in any more.”

At other times, Sweeney’s indifference could curdle to contempt: “I had no use for the North as I thought they were no good.” Contrary to the claim that Collins was working hand in hand, even if under the table, with Republicans, Sweeney “got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, nor had I any instructions to back them up.”[11]

Seán Lehane

In fairness to Sweeney, the Anti-Treatyites who set up base in Donegal did not make for particularly easy roommates; at times, they acted more like an invasion force than allies, as a Free State convoy found when driving through Newtowncunningham on the 4th May 1922. Anti-Treatyites opened fire, inflicting grievous casualties: three killed and five wounded. Writing to the press a week later, Lehane did his best to put his side in the best light, arguing that the whole messy business could have been avoided had Sweeney been more receptive to his earlier overtures at the Free State headquarters in Drumboe Castle:

I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.

But Sweeney was having none of what the Corkman was offering:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’[12]

After the Newtowncunningham debacle, it was hard to see how the two rival IRAs could be anything else. “This clash finished what we set out to do for it finished any hope of our relationship with the Provisional Government improving, for they were getting worse,” recalled Mossy Donegan, another Corkonian. “When we looked for help from the Free State it was refused.”[13]

And yet that was not quite the case.

A Free State officer, looking rakish with his Tommy gun

Fighting alongside the Anti-Treatyites, men who were threatening the peace of his county, was probably the last thing Sweeney either wanted or anticipated at the end of May, but that is more or less what happened in the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle. At the time, though, the picture Sweeney presented was a straightforward one: all aggression had been from the British, with the Free State the sole victim of it. Particularly deplorable was “the British shelling of Pettigo resulting in the deaths of three of my men [emphasis mine].” If there had been “any serious and deliberate invasion of Northern territory” – the closest Sweeney got to admitting the possible presence of Anti-Treatyites in the area – it “was not an act of my men.”[14]

“Absolutely False and Malicious”

Needless to say, the British report on the fracas, released on the 6th June 1922, aimed its finger squarely in the opposite direction:

As a result of the continuous aggression on the part of the so-called Free Stater troops in what is known as the ‘Pettigo Salient,’ which resulted in three casualties (one of them in Pettigo) to the military during the last week, it was decided that the ‘salient’ should be occupied by Imperial [British] troops.

These ‘three casualties’ were not named or identified. Special Constable Dobson, however, received that dubious distinction, being “shot dead when in Ulster territory, half a mile from the border” and definitely not while “taking an active part in the operations.” It had been in response to sniping, aiming down from the high ground around Pettigo (the same vantage point Macready identified), that British forces opposite the village used artillery guns on the 4th June, firing half a dozen shells. After this thunderous prelude, British troops advanced on both flanks, leading to a running battle amidst hedges and ditches that lasted from about 11 o’clock to 4 in the afternoon.

Pettigo, Co. Donegal (aerial shot)

As the Irish Free State issued its own review immediately after, the authors had the opportunity to counter the other’s points. Shelling had not been in response to Dobson’s death, for the Special Constable was killed after the artillery rounds. The claim that British soldiers on their side of the Lough Erne had been fired on from the Free State-owned end was “absolutely false and malicious”, as was the accusation that British soldiers moving towards Pettigo, but still in British-held territory, had been targeted on the morning of the 4th June.

All aggression had been on the part of Crown forces, as an earlier incident on the Wednesday of the 31st May demonstrated:

A scout reported two Crossley tenders and one armoured car on the Kesh road, coming towards the border. Orders were sent out to the post covering the Kesh road not to fire unless they were attacked. Before the order reached the post a person in one of the tenders, dressed in a khaki coat and black trousers, got out of the tender, placed a Lewis gun on the fence, and opened fire on another post of ours, which guarded the left flank of Pettigo, and on our territory. The post covering the Kesh road immediately opened fire on the Lewis gunner. The men in the tenders were all dressed in black, except the one man in the khaki coat. The tenders and armoured car immediately retreated.

Not only was the restraint of the Free State soldiers emphasised but also how “there were no other Irish troops in the district then or now.”[15]

The ‘no other’ were presumably a reference to the anti-Treaty IRA, a distinction Dublin was keen to draw. As we shall see, this was not quite the case, though discerning what else was true and false is not an easy matter. Each army claimed the mantle of ‘defendant’ while pointing to the opposition as ‘attacker’, when, really, the statuses of both sides were what could be diplomatically described as ‘fluid’.

British soldiers behind a barricade in Northern Ireland (in this case, Belfast, 1922)

After all, “for a considerable period prior to the British attack, intermittent fighting had been going on between out [sic] forces and the Ulster Specials and Volunteers along the Donegal-Tyrone-Fermanagh Border,” wrote J. Murray, one of the IRA participants, five years later in 1927. He added, in one of the more honest statements from that period: “It would be difficult to relate all the circumstances that led to the fighting.”[16]

‘Anything Could Happen’

By the end of the twelve days of hostilities, from the opening skirmish on the 28th May to the fall of Belleek by the 8th June, three men were dead on the Irish side, although not necessary on that of the Irish Free State, contrary to Sweeney’s insistence: Patrick Flood of Pettigo, and Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, Co. Tyrone. None were initially named in the newspapers and, when two of them were made public, through the British military inquiry in Enniskillen, they were incorrectly identified as ‘McEnweel’ and ‘Connolly’ from Rameltown, Co. Donegal.[17]

IRA men

The reason for this ignorance was calculated, for when the trio of bodies were taken to Enniskillen, false names and addresses were provided by those claiming them to better fit the narrative that the deceased had been in the service of the Free State. Lieutenant Owen McDonnell, who was sent to Donegal from Dublin to assess the situation post-battle, estimated that of the twenty-five IRA men who had come over the Border to Pettigo, fifteen had “signified their willingness to remain loyal to General Headquarters,” as in the Free State.[18]

Which would presumably mean the other ten were anti-Treaty but, to those involved, such distinctions may not have seemed terribly important. In the case of Nicholas Smyth, although he joined the Republicans when the Civil War came, his priority in May 1922 was more self-preservation than politics, and it was for that reason that he had fled his native Tyrone for Donegal.

Not all his comrades got away in time, with half the officers and rank-and-file fighters in the Tyrone IRA captured by the Northern Irish authorities (Tyrone, lest we forget, fell on the British side of the Border). Smyth himself had been warned by a sympathetic Protestant that he would be shot if caught. Once in Pettigo, Smyth was housed in the old barracks of the village with thirty or forty other IRA ‘refugees’ who busied themselves with patrol duties and plans for when they could return over the Border and renew the war for Irish freedom in their home counties. Whoever was Republican or Free State, anti or pro-Treaty, did not matter, not in that particular place or point in time – for now, all were Volunteers for Ireland, as it had been before.

248_1“Although life was dull, there was an air of expectancy about the place and one felt that anything could happen,” Smyth recalled years later, in his statement to the Bureau of Military History.

As it turned out, something did.

Given the tensions across the Border in recent months, Smyth was hardly surprised when news came, on the Sunday of the 28th May, of that skirmish with the Ulster Special Constabulary, which had resulted in a number of policemen being cut off on an island in Lough Erne. To forestall a breakout, orders were issued for the Volunteers at hand, Smyth among them, to dig a trench across the road at Pettigo Bridge:

While this work was in progress large numbers of enemy forces began to appear on the Fermanagh side of the border. As our working party was in grave danger should the enemy open fire, I was ordered to take a covering party of about 12 or 14 men to protect. These men were armed with rifles. We took up positions overlooking the bridge. The enemy forces doubled and took up positions behind a hedge (?) across from us.

In danger of being caught in a crossfire between their own side and the enemy, the trench-diggers hurriedly pulled back. Smyth told his subordinates to hold their fire but keep in position and await further orders. And there they stayed, on the possible frontline of an impending battle, for a couple of hours. The danger in the air must have spread to the village behind them as Pettigo was deathly quiet – “you could hear a pin drop,” as Smyth put – until the tension snapped with a single gunshot:

This was followed by three or four more single ones. This seemed to be a signal, because the whole place became alive with sound in a few minutes. Bullets were hitting the wall just over our heads and large lumps of lead were dropping on top of us. Our rifles were soon too hot to hold and the air was filled with the smoke and the smell of cordite.

Thankfully, the enemy withdrew before the Volunteers could exhaust their ammunition. Even then there was no respite, with the Irishmen fixed at their posts throughout the night until the Monday morning of the 29th May. Relieved of duty at 7 am, the IRA men trudged through Pettigo in twos and threes – not that the fighting refused to let them be, as Smyth found out almost to his cost:

Danny Gallagher and I were crossing the street when one of the enemy had a shot at us. The bullet hit the road just in front of us. We lay flat on the street and one of our fellows who saw the thing happening got a Thompson gun and let this sniper have a couple of bursts. We didn’t hear from him again.

Some food and a few hours of overdue sleep later, the men gathered at the old barracks, readying themselves for the next round. Monday, however, stayed quiet throughout the day and continued so at night.

Ulster Special Constabulary in a trench

Final Push

At daybreak, British forces attacked again. Smyth led a team along the railway line in order to cover the main road into Pettigo. Resistance was evidently strong, for some of the Crown combatants were retreating down the road, allowing the Volunteers a chance to snipe at them. Smyth saw how one of his comrades had fitted his rifle for hurling grenades; although none hit their target, Smyth was impressed at the innovation.

With the assailants beaten back yet again, Pettigo enjoyed a measure of quiet, save for the odd potshot. Two days later, on the 1st June, the British tried again with a frontal assault by twelve Crossley tenders carrying policemen and soldiers. The Volunteers allowed them to near before opening fire at the sight of the proverbial ‘whites of their eyes.’ IRA outposts elsewhere added their firepower, and Smyth guessed the enemy casualties to be severe, though the Crown force gave as good as it got with its machine-guns.

After half an hour, the police and soldiers fell back:

An amusing sequel to this fight was that one of the policemen, for some reason or another, didn’t leave with the rest and after the main party had moved off he started off down the road, running for all he was worth. None of our fellows fired on him, but gave him a hearty cheer.

Despite these successes, the strain was starting to be felt by the defenders of Pettigo, less than a hundred of whom were available in the village at any given time. The British, in contrast, were growing stronger, with more soldiers to be seen on Boa Island, in Lough Erne, from where two incursions were launched over the water, landing two miles down from Pettigo and forcing the Irish to divert manpower to there, as well as to another point in the Letter district, three miles away.

Lough Erne

Smyth barely had an hour in bed before a fresh attack was reported at a narrow isthmus known as Waterfoot. He arrived with the rest, having to crawl the last three hundred yards due to the bullets whizzing through the air. The Volunteers already on the scene, under the command of James Scallon, were in a perilous state, taking fire from two different directions. Smyth suggested to Scallon that they shift between these separate points so that their opponents would catch themselves in a crossfire:

We did this and it worked out as we had anticipated. When we got them properly engaged in the darkness, we returned to the safety of our trench. Their fire at each other continued for some time and eventually both parties of the enemy evacuated their positions and retreated.

The Irishmen did not, sleeping where they were until relieved. The fight was continuing here and there even as Smyth attended morning Mass in Pettigo. It was while he was leaving the church that the British played their trump card: artillery guns, the first time they had been deployed in Ireland since 1916.

Smyth hurried to the building used as their military headquarters, finding it already deserted. Even with this new level of warfare, he did not think the British would go so far as to occupy the village – only to look through a window, a quick cup of tea in hand, to see two armoured cars parked outside.

Pettigo, Co. Doengal (today)

With nothing else to be done, Smyth grabbed a Thompson gun that had been left on a table – which says much about how quickly the place was abandoned – and went out, into the yard at the back. There he found Danny Gallagher (the man he had been with when narrowly avoiding a sniper’s aim) and twenty others, all huddled behind a hedge. So intense was the enemy fusillade that the one Volunteer with a weapon to match, a Lewis gun, did not dare risk exposing himself to use it (though Smyth gave a few return shots with his newly claimed Thompson). Retreat being the only sane option, the band crawled away, singly or in pairs, along the hedge.

When they judged themselves to be sufficiently far away, the Volunteers quickened their pace, finally breaking cover to dash across a bare patch of land. An artillery shell chose that moment to land beside them, splattering Smyth and the rest with mud but miraculously leaving them unscathed. The fleeing Irishmen were able to continue on and escape, making their way to Donegal town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. About fifty-five or sixty-five others arrived with Smyth, only half the number that had held Pettigo.[19]

At least no pursuit was made, for there was still one more nail for the Crown forces to hammer down. “I understand that the advance will be continued to-morrow towards Belleek,” wrote the journalist on the scene for the Irish Times.[20]

Newsreel from Topical Budget depicting the capture of Belleek by British troops, available from the Irish Film Institute (IFI) Archive Player:

By Thursday, the 8th June, the Fermanagh village in question was too under British control, courtesy of the one hundred and fifty soldiers from the Manchester Regiment and the Lincolnshire Regiment’s three companies, which had advanced on Belleek from the south and north respectively.  As with Pettigo, resistance was offered by rifle and Thompson gunshots, some of which came from an old Williamite fort on a hill overlooking Belleek.

belleek-fortAnd, as with Pettigo, artillery made all the difference:

There was a “boom” of a big gun, and the ground shook. A cloud of dust rose from the back of the fort, and the Republicans were seen scattering in all directions. Three more high explosive shells were fired, and every one of them registered a hit, landing within the walls of the fort.

As the garrison was from anti-Treaty IRA and thus unambiguously hostile, and that Belleek lay on the Northern Irish side of the Border, the village made for a much more straightforward mission than Free State-held Pettigo in Donegal (tellingly, when Collins later complained of the British attack against Pettigo, he ignored the one on Belleek). The exchange of bullets and shells had begun at 12:45; three-quarters of an hour later, the Anti-Treatyites were reported to be in retreat. Save for a slight injury, no casualties among the British were suffered, nor any bodies found in Belleek, making it as close to a bloodless battle as could be hoped.[21]

At 10 Downing Street, London, news of the victory and its swiftness was celebrated by the Prime Minister and his inner circle with a bottle of champagne and the singing of songs until past midnight. Relief rather than triumphalism was the order of the day, for the last thing David Lloyd George had wanted was to be “fighting in the swamps of Lough Erne,” as he told Churchill.[22]

British troops
‘Lads who took the town”- victorious Tommies pose in Belleek with a captured tricolour flag: (1:40)

Overwhelming Force

It had been a brave holdout but, in Smyth’s resigned view, “the forces which the British used against our men in the last stages of the fight in Pettigo were so overwhelming that we couldn’t stem the tide.” If nothing could have averted the outcome, then one thing Smyth did regret was the death of Patrick Flood. Flood had stayed behind for some overdue sleep when Smyth left for Waterfoot, being too tired to do anything else. He later died elsewhere at Drumharriff Hill, haunting Smyth for years afterwards with the possibility of Flood surviving had they only stayed together.[23]

1b534e4b-921b-4654-ad4b-d0d2188269e0Four were reported dead altogether: three of the Pettigo defenders, unnamed and otherwise unremarked, and Special Constable Dobson, whose death had previously been reported. Post-victory, it received more elaboration in the Irish Times: despite being shot in the head, the dying Dobson had managed to apply the brakes of his Lancia car and bring it to a halt by the roadside, rather than getting in the way of the other vehicles and rendering them easy targets.[24]

A contradictory version came from John Travers. Like Smyth, Travers was contributing a statement to the Bureau of Military History, three decades after the event, in July 1952 (four other participants, including Smyth and James Scollan, put their names at the end, indicating that the document was a group effort). According to Travers and company, after Dobson was downed, “the car overturned and blocked the road. Fire from the Volunteers prevented them from clearing the way for some time.”[25]

British armored cars
British armoured cars: (00.25)

Travers also contributed the closest account posterity has for the final moments of the three fallen defenders:

The machine gun post of about eight IRA Volunteers which manned Drumharriff Hill covering the approach to the town [Pettigo], held their position until their ammunition was exhausted and then the post was surround [sic] and captured. Three of the gallant defenders, Patrick Flood of Pettigo, Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, were killed at their post.[26]

Neither Travers nor any of his five contributors seem to have been eyewitnesses to this last stand and so little more than the bare facts above can be provided. The Monday after the fight, Father Bernard Hackett was to find Flood’s body in the field where he fell and removed it to the Catholic church in Pettigo. The top of Flood’s head was missing, torn off by what the padre guessed to have been an artillery shell.[27]

British artillery, having just fired (note the smoke to the right): (00:57)

And Flood’s condition was not the worst, for he at least was recognisable. Part of why McCanny and Kearney were not immediately identified was “principally owing to their mutilated condition,” according to the report by Lieutenant McDonnell. In addition to the three dead, McDonnell estimated eighteen further casualties to the Free State, these being prisoners who had been removed to Enniskillen.[28]

A fourth name on the memorial to the Irish dead in Pettigo is William Deasley ‘who died of wounds 6-6-1922’. According to historian Liam Ó Duibhir, these injuries were not from the actual battle but afterwards in Donegal town as a result of an accident. And then there had been the blood spilt at the very start, that of the Lancia car driver who had been shot on the 28th May while crossing with a police convoy into the Free State: Special Constable Herbert Thomas Rickerby, a Belfast man (given the similarity between his death and Dobson’s, the driver’s seat in a military vehicle must have been an exceptionally dangerous place to be).[29]

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo, Co. Donegal

Numbers are a notoriously difficult science for the military researcher, given the tendency of primary sources to inflate them; for example, Michael O’Donoghue believed that fifteen Free State soldiers altogether had been slain by the shelling of Pettigo. But, when all is said and counted, five (six if you count the latecomer Deasley) is the most reasonable tally of the butcher’s bill.[30]

An Army Once Again?

Though not present in either Pettigo or Belleek, Michael O’Donoghue was in Donegal, one of the Corkonians sent to assist the anti-Treaty IRA there, and so can provide a man-on-the-ground view of how the situation was perceived. The initial reaction for O’Donoghue and his comrades in Donegal town was dread: if the British advanced westwards along the Erne River to Ballyshannon, they could cut the Anti-Treatyites off from the rest of ‘Southern’ Ireland.

British soldiers marching through the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, June 1922

However, that looming cloud promised a silver lining, in O’Donoghue’s view:

Had they done so, the whole subsequent history of Ireland would assuredly have been changed, for a unified Irish Republican Army would have waged renewed war on the British in Ulster and prevented the setting up of the Six County statelet.[31]

For if the valiant, albeit ill-fated, defence of Pettigo and Belleek had demonstrated anything, it was how:

At last the sundered wings of the IRA – the Free Staters and the Republicans – were fighting side by side as comrades again here in Ulster against the common English enemy. Now the Irish Republican Army had closed its ranks and were re-united once more.[32]

Brian Monaghan, who had been in the battle, thought much the same:

This incident seemed to heal the division in the ranks of the former IRA as both the treaty supporters at Pettigo and the anti-Treaty supporters at Belleek took a hand at actively opposing the advance of the British Forces.

But it was not to be:

Unfortunately this temporary feeling of old-time unity disappeared as soon as the military operations against the British forces came to an end.[33]

Disappointedly, and “strange to say, the British stayed put in Belleek and Pettigo and made no further move,” O’Donoghue lamented. Despite the Pettigo-Belleek clash being exactly the sort of reaction Liam Lynch had hoped to provoke when undertaking the ‘Army of the North’, the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal were caught off-guard as much as anyone. But, when reviewing events years later, O’Donoghue preferred to blame external forces rather than his own side’s failure to capitalise on their gift-wrapped opportunity:

Michael Collins was called to London to explain the warlike activities of the Free State army in Ulster. What transpired between himself and Churchill there will hardly ever be fully revealed.[34]

An Unbridgeable Gulf?

What went on behind closed doors was not quite as cloak-and-dagger as O’Donoghue tried to make out – contrary to his insinuation, we have quite a lot of material about Collins’ interactions with the British state – but the clash of arms on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier did expose just how far the two governments were at an understanding. Collins and Arthur Griffith were not even aware that the fighting had broken out until informed about it in a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on the 31st May. Worse, neither Irish Cabinet minister knew if it were the Anti-Treatyites who were involved or their own forces. Collins repudiated any Free State involvement – erroneously, as he later learnt – to Churchill, who was in turn downplaying the whole affair as much as he could to Parliament.[35]

Thomas Jones

Both men were feeling the strain. Thomas Jones, a civil servant with a front-row seat to many of the Anglo-Irish deliberations, had had a testy conversation at Chequers with a frazzled Churchill, who wanted to send in the military to the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle without first warning their partners in the Free State. When Jones cautioned him against impulsivity, Churchill threatened to resign and leave the Prime Minister to carry the load (Lloyd George, when he heard, compared his Colonial Secretary to an unstable chauffeur who was liable to drive everyone off a cliff without warning).[36]

Collins likewise yearned to cast off responsibility. The first thing he had told Jones at one encounter in late May was: “This gulf is unbridgeable.” Going back to war, with his comrades at his side once again, did not seem like such a bad thing, he hinted to Jones. But this was more of a case of Collins venting than seriously considering. His immediate demand was for jaw-jaw rather than war-war; when asked by an American journalist if he would insist on an official enquiry into the Pettigo-Belleek affair, Collins was emphatic: “Most certainly.”[37]

Michael Collins, looking like a man with a lot on his mind

He calmed down somewhat after a talk with Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, the Secretary of War, and Lord Cavan, Chief of the General Staff, in mid-June. As he told Richard Mulcahy in a letter:

I am satisfied that there is a very serious conflict of evidence and I am not satisfied that either side can be accepted as being correct.

What Collins had heard was apparently enough to persuade him that enough blame was there to go around: “I was pressing my demand for an enquiry but eased off somewhat after certain passages of the British report had been read out to me.” Any secret deal struck with Liam Lynch belonged to a different age, assuming anything of the sort had really existed. As for Churchill, when asked in Parliament, the Colonial Secretary confirmed that no such enquiry would be necessary as his government accepted “full responsibility for the action which the military authorities took by their express direction.”[38]

Cooler heads, it seemed, were prevailing. It was not the end of the Irish Question for Britain, nor the Border issue for Ireland, but the attentions of both countries did not linger long on either Pettigo or Belleek. British, Free Stater and Republicans turned to bigger priorities, and soon to bigger battles, and the one that had flared up on the Donegal-Fermanagh border so suddenly faded away just as swiftly.

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo


[1] Irish Times, 30/05/1922

[2] Ibid, 05/06/1922

[3] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), p. 649

[4] Ibid, pp. 631-2, 645, 656

[5] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9

[6] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238

[7] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4

[8] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 251

[9] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 205

[10] Ibid, p. 63

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 33-5

[12] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[13] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 97

[14] Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018), p. 129

[15] Irish Times, 06/06/1922

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Kearney, William’ (W2/11378), p. 18

[17] Names and addresses supplied by Travers, John (BMH / WS 711), p. 7 ; Irish Times, 07/06/1922

[18] Kearney, pp. 3, 11

[19] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 24-31

[20] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[21] Ibid, 09/06/1922

[22] Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 211-2

[23] Smyth, pp. 29, 31

[24] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[25] Travers, p. 6

[26] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[27] Flood, Patrick, W2D221, pp. 111-2

[28] Kearney, p. 3

[29] Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), p. 128 ; Belfast Newsletter, 31/05/1922

[30] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 95

[31] Ibid, p. 97

[32] Ibid, p. 95

[33] Monaghan, Brian (BMH / WS 879), p. 13

[34] O’Donoghue, p. 97

[35] Downing, p. 124

[36] Jones, pp. 210, 212

[37] Ibid, p. 203 ; Downing, p. 136

[38] Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997), p. 352 ; Irish Times, 15/06/1922



Belfast Newsletter

Derry Journal

Irish Times


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

Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018)

Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)

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

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924])

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

Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

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

Military Service Pensions Collection

Flood, Patrick, W2D221

Kearney, William, W2/11378

Bureau of Military History Statements

Monaghan, Brian, WS 879

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721

Travers, John, WS 711


Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997)


The Elephant in the Revolutionary Room: The Irish Republican Brotherhood and its (Maybe, Perhaps, Possible) Role in the Irish Struggle, 1917-24

Rights and Authority vs Hidden Forces

Michael Collins

Michael Collins was a busy man in April 1921, but not too busy to respond to a letter from a Mr Meagher in Australia. Meagher was curious about the recent state of affairs in Ireland, fought over as it was by the British military authorities and the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Collins, with an eye to PR and perhaps out of genuine helpfulness as well, took the time to answer his correspondence point by point.

To Meagher’s query – “Is there any truth in the report that Sinn Fein is controlled by the IRB?” – Collins was emphatic that “to make such a suggestion is to show an entire misconception not only of the relative positions of these separate organisations but of the whole Irish situation.” Since its inception sixty years ago, the policy of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been that of the current independence movement and, as such, “it may be called the parent of all present day Irish Ireland organisations.”

Nonetheless, despite this prestige, despite the venerability of the IRB:

One body only has the right and authority to speak and it is the body brought into being by the freely exercised will of the Irish people. It is DAIL ÉIREANN. That is the Government of Ireland, and to it all national organisations within Ireland give allegiance.[1]

Spoken like a true democrat. Others, however, might have looked askance at this answer and wondered if its author was being entirely straightforward in his avowedly unambiguous response. Certainly, the O/C of the Sligo IRA Brigade felt he needed clarification when some of his subordinates committed a raid on a mail car, during “which some hundreds of pounds [in] letters were taken without the sanction or knowledge” of the rest of the Brigade.

Since there appeared to be “hidden forces at work that are not working for the greater efficiency of the Volunteers,” the O/C wrote to Collins, then the IRA Adjutant-General, in April 1920, asking about “the attitude of the Irish Volunteer organisation to the IRB,” to which the raiders had apparently belonged.[2]

IRA men standing to

Collins’ response a month later, as with his one to Meagher, was to dismiss any suggestion of a conflict of interests:

Arising out of your letter…re attitude of Irish Volunteers and another organisation, you will notice that there is no difference between the aims and methods of the Irish Volunteer Organisation and the other one you mention.

Noticeably, Collins did not refer to the ‘other one’ by name, as if too delicate an issue to touch directly. That was not to say that its members could act with impunity, as Collins instructed the Sligo commander to arrest the perpetrators of the mail car robbery and relieve them of their ill-gotten, and unauthorised, gains.[3]

Even so, questions continued, for Sligo was not the only IRA area uncomfortable with compromised authority. In May 1920, Collins received a letter from the Adjutant of the Leitrim Volunteers, asking him who among their ranks were in the IRB as well due to the suspicion that these Brotherhood insiders “seem to have power over us.”[4]

Elements of Consciousness

If Collins replied, then his answer has been lost to posterity, since most of the subsequent sheets in that particular batch – stored in the National Library of Ireland with the rest of his papers – are in tatters, rendering their words illegible. In any case, Richard Mulcahy was not impressed with how the Library was handling the memoranda of his old comrade. “They strike me as being the sweepings of some room,” he wrote with a sniff, “they in no way suggest the manner in which Collins kept his papers or that they were anything but crumbs indicating certain aspects of his varied work.”[5]

The National Library of Ireland, this author’s spiritual abode

With his own eye on history, Mulcahy discussed the era with another former colleague, Peadar McMahon, in 1963. While Mulcahy had served as the IRA Chief of Staff during the War of Independence, McMahon worked as an IRA organiser, dispatched by GHQ to places deemed in need of assistance, one of which happened to be Leitrim. There, McMahon found a brigade not so much dominated by the IRB as oblivious to it:

Mulcahy: Did you ever on any of your moments on organisation work come across anybody who was consciously an IRB man as distinct from a Volunteer?

Peadar McMahon
General Peadar MacMahon, in the uniform of the Irish Army

McMahon: No. In Leitrim, it was rather amusing; they pointed out ‘in such an area there is a man there who is a member of the IRB’. Otherwise you would never hear the IRB mentioned at all, simply GHQ, and because I was from GHQ they couldn’t do half enough for me.

Mulcahy: Was the fellow from the IRB an old man?

McMahon: I never met him. It was simply pointed out that he was there and I was interested enough to go and see him.

Mulcahy: Would he be from the Seán McDermott area – Kiltyclogher?

McMahon: He was. When I asked what age he was, I was told he was eighty-seven.[6]

Similarly underwhelming was McMahon’s own experiences, such as they were:

Mulcahy: When did you link up with the IRB or what contact had you with it?

McMahon: In 1917. I was introduced to it by Seán Ó Muirthile and didn’t attend a meeting from the day he introduced me to it until that meeting – 1917 to 1922.

Mulcahy: So in these three years – 1917, ’18 and ’19 – you never attended an IRB circle and you never got instructions from anybody. Why was that? Was it that it satisfied the IRB requirements that you were a member of the Volunteers?

McMahon: I don’t know.[7]

Mulcahy concurred with that description. To him, the strength of the rank-and-file Volunteers had been their “air of comradeship, naturalness and understanding of the difficulties.” Loyalty was directed towards – in varying degrees – the IRA GHQ, Dáil Éireann and the underground Irish Government, but otherwise without any “element of consciousness of an IRB outlook or IRB organisation or IRB orders anywhere else.” As for policy: ‘Join the Volunteers and take your orders from your superior officer.’ Had McMahon, Mulcahy asked, ever been told anything different by anyone in the IRB?

“No, nothing else,” McMahon replied.[8]

Richard Mulcahy, completely owning that desk

A Disputed Dispute

Obviously, these are the conclusions of two men, speaking decades afterwards. At the time, the picture did not seem so simple; indeed, the Brotherhood was a sensitive spot for Mulcahy, considering how he had lost his military command, as did others in the Army Council, in no small part because of the secret society and its alleged role in the Army Mutiny of 1924. As with the subject of the IRB in general, much is open for debate, and little known for certain. Initial responsibility lay on the body of mutinous malcontents, the so-called IRA Organisation, wrote the Army Inquiry Committee in its report to the Dáil in June 1924.


While we are completely satisfied that there would have been no mutiny but for the existence of this organisation [the IRA Organisation], we are equally satisfied that its activities were intensified by the revival or reorganisation of the IRB, with the encouragement of certain members of the Army Council.[9]

It had all been “a disastrous error in judgment,” concluded the Committee. According to Mulcahy, however, he and other ‘certain members’ in question had only the best of intentions in reforming the IRB:

[Mulcahy] suggested to the Dáil that there was in that organisation a force that required to be controlled and directed, and that he, as the Minister responsible, should take steps to have that force stabilised in the Army.[10]

Whatever the original motive, stability was the last thing achieved, least of all for Mulcahy’s career, as he was forced to step down as Minister of Defence. So did Seán Ó Muirthile as Quartermaster-General, Adjutant-General Gearóid O’Sullivan and the Chief of Staff, Seán MacMahon. Kevin O’Higgins was the chief winner of the debacle, out of which the Minister of Justice emerged as the defender of the civilian government, strongman of the state and vanquisher of troublesome cabals.

Kevin O’Higgins strutting his stuff

Assuming there had been an IRB left by that stage. McMahon found the whole affair puzzling and more than a little absurd because, as he told Mulcahy in August 1963, the Brotherhood had already been wrapped up by the time O’Higgins flexed his political muscles:

McMahon: [The] statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB was ridiculous. Months before that, I was called to a meeting at the private secretary’s lodge in the Phoenix Park. Martin Conlon was there, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Seán Ó Muirthile, Dan Hogan, Eoin O’Duffy and I think that was the lot. The meeting was called to bring the IRB to an end. It was feared that some irresponsible people were trying to get control of it, and the funds, which at that time were in the hands of Eoin O’Duffy, were handed over to Martin Conlon. The statement that Kevin O’Higgins supressed the IRB came as a big surprise to me.

Mulcahy: Are you sure that that meeting was before the army episode?

Seán Ó Muirthile (from An t-Óglách, 7th April 1923 (Vol. 1, No. 4)

McMahon: Yes. As a matter of fact, Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General, Seán Ó Muirthile was Quarter Master General.

Mulcahy: Was that the end of the contact with that question that you had?

McMahon: Yes, that was the end.

Mulcahy: Do you remember any kind of meeting that was held in Portobello that I am supposed to have been at, at which the various O/Cs of the various divisions were pressed for the purpose of reorganising the IRB?

McMahon: No, I never heard of it even and I am sure I would have been there if there had been such a meeting. I didn’t hear the IRB discussed from that particular meeting until –

Mulcahy: Would you be able to get an approximate date for that?

McMahon: It would be difficult, but it must have been before it because I know that Gearóid O’Sullivan was Adj. General and Seán Ó Muirthile was Q.M.G.

Mulcahy: In what capacity in the IRB were you there?

McMahon: In no capacity.[11]

‘The Whole Caboose’

Which is the opinion of one man. Others would differ, pointing to the Brotherhood as not only active but ambitious, with an eye to the future as much as the present. Though the ‘IRB Constitution – 1923’ was tentatively labelled ‘Provisional’, its contents speak of an organisation determined to be anything but.

The Supreme Council was to be expanded to twenty-eight members: one from each of the sixteen IRB Divisions encompassing Ireland and Britain, four co-opted and the remaining eight – most significantly – out of the eleven Divisions in the National Army (in comparison, the earlier 1920 Constitution only anticipated a need for fifteen Supreme Councilmen). To accommodate military initiates, they were to form ‘Clubs’, each headed by a Centre who would report up the societal chain of command, and not exceeding ten-strong unless authorised by the Supreme Council – exactly like the civilian ‘Circles’ of before that were clearly intended to continue on, running parallel now with the new Clubs. These were no idle musings, either, for a note in the margins identified Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, men at the very top of the National Army, as the ones presenting this proposed document to their peers.[12]


Free State soldiers on parade

The future of the IRB had been under consideration for some time, as Ó Muirthile wrote in his memoirs. The Supreme Council, on which he sat, had not been active for a while, nor were local branches across Ireland as far as he knew, leaving the organisation in limbo and its adherents uncertain. After hearing of these concerns from others in the National Army, Ó Muirthile raised the issue with the remaining Supreme Council members and it was agreed, at a meeting in January 1923, that:

  • The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
  • This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
  • The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.[13]
Seán Ó Muirthile (Civil War caricature, the only image found of the man)

Unlike Mulcahy and Collins, who had their roles in the IRA and government as well as the IRB, Ó Muirthile’s place in the Irish struggle was largely defined by the Brotherhood – and perhaps the IRB was defined in turn by him, considering the length and level of his involvement. It was he who chaired a special meeting in Dublin, in early 1917, for the purpose of reorganising the fellowship since the shock of the Easter Rising failure and the decimation of its leadership in the resultant executions. His ‘take charge’ attitude and garrulousness did not endear him to everyone in the room, with one delegate from Galway feeling that Ó Muirthile thought “that he was the head of the whole caboose.”[14]

Another acquaintance immune to his charms was Ernie O’Malley, who remembered Ó Muirthile as “a big, burly man with a thick moustache and a prosperous air, pudding rolls at the back of his neck.” While conceding that Ó Muirthile was a good speaker and “considered a man of weight…I did not like him from the first.”[15]

Ernie O’Malley

Civil War bitterness might have coloured these reminiscences, for the two men were to choose opposing sides in that internecinal conflict, during which O’Malley identified the Free State enemy so much with the Brotherhood that he wrote in April 1923, while under threat of execution in Mountjoy Prison, of his life resting “on the whims of an IRB clique.”[16]

Lingering memories of that unpleasant experience would be channelled into academic interest. When interviewing to his peers for posterity, O’Malley was wont to ask, as one other historian puts it:

…frequent questions about the functions of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), especially in regards to its impact on the Anglo-Irish Treaty split. O’Malley was not a member of the IRB, so he had little personal understanding of its internal working and seemed to want to educate himself as to the importance of the IRB in the division of the IRA over the Treaty.[17]

“Did IRB also think it would be IRB who would do as they were told in the case of the Treaty?” O’Malley asked himself in the margins of his notebook when discussing with an interviewee the dominance of the fraternity over the 1916 Rising.[18]

In another interview, he was sceptical about Joe Sweeney’s claim that the IRB had never tried to persuade him over the Treaty. O’Malley reminded him about a book in which the author, Piaras Béaslaí, revealed how the Supreme Council had informed IRB members who were also TDs of its decision to back the Treaty.

Piaras_Beasla_Book“Yes,” said Sweeney, “I remember that.”

“Didn’t you think that was a lead?’ O’Malley said, with just a hint of a sting in his words.[19]

Leading and/or Deciding

O’Malley was not alone in his suspicions – or bitterness. Unsure as to which side to take in the looming schism, Seamus McKenna consulted Pat McCormack, a man greatly respected amongst Belfast republicans and who had sat on the IRB Supreme Council. McCormack’s advice was to stick with the IRA GHQ and choose, by default, the Treaty. Eight or months later, McCormack changed his mind but the damage, as McKenna was concerned, was done: “He had…already compromised, and led others along the same path.” Not that McCormack was alone in his perceived apostasy, McKenna being “sure that many other IRB men accepted the ill-fated Treaty on the advice of their officers in that organisation.”[20]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, lampooning Griffith and Collins

It is notable, however, that McCormack was giving solicited advice rather than orders. The grandiosity of its name aside, the Supreme Council had a tenacious hold on its followers, one that could be dropped, seemingly at will, such as when Tom Maguire chanced upon Michael Thornton in a hotel hallway during the Treaty crisis in early 1922. As part of the IRB Connaught Council, a halfway body between the Supreme Council and the Circles in that province, Thornton stood above Maguire in the IRB hierarchy.

Tom Maguire

Yet, when Thornton told of the Supreme Council’s siding with the Treaty, Maguire replied that meant nothing to him; he was a free agent and would do whatever he thought was right. Thornton left at that point, and Maguire, far from suffering consequences for his independence, continued in his rank as a Mayo IRA commander, leading his troops against the Free State in the subsequent Civil War.[21]

Even those who went the other way could do so not because of the IRB but despite it. Joe Sweeney would be one of the Free State’s most active generals in the Civil War; this despite him not wanting anything to do with the Treaty when he first read of its signing in the newspapers. A cautious man, Sweeney nonetheless travelled to Dublin from Donegal, where he led its IRA Brigade, to consult with the President of the Supreme Council.

Seeing a depressed and worn Collins in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney decided against bothering a man already under visible strain. Instead, Sweeney found O’Duffy in the hotel and took him aside. Regardless of O’Duffy’s own high placement in the IRB, he could offer nothing more definite than how it was up to Sweeney to decide for himself. It was only after Sweeney returned to Donegal and discussed with local Sinn Féin acquittances that he threw his lot in with the Treaty.[22]

O’Malley would privately doubt all this, thinking that “Sweeney prevaricated about his attitude to the Treaty.” Who had decided him? he jotted to himself in his interview notebook.[23]

Joe Sweeney in later years

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’

O’Malley’s snide cynicism aside, there is no reason to think Sweeney was any more an unthinking drone than Liam Lynch, who did not let his own membership – not just of the IRB but of the Supreme Council itself – stop him from directing the anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War. Indeed, in November 1922, five months into the conflict, Lynch was thinking up ways to reclaim the Brotherhood for his cause and thus redeem “the honour of this splendid historic organisation,” as he put it in a letter to his right-hand man, Liam Deasy.

Liam Lynch

Lynch was by then the last Supreme Council member who opposed the Treaty still alive – Harry Boland had been killed in August 1922 – and at liberty, unlike Joe McKelvey and Charlie Daly. With responsibility now solely on his shoulders, Lynch outlined to Deasy how he would go about things: an adjourned meeting from before would be reopened, in which his Supreme Council colleagues who had voted for the Treaty were to be held to account, suitably castigated by the middle-ranking IRB officials in attendance and then cast out, allowing the ruling body to be filled with more Republican-minded replacements. In the event of this meeting being refused, then Lynch would dispense with formalities and drop the pro-Treaty dissenters from his reformed Supreme Council all the same.[24]

Was this plan plausible? Not just Lynch thought so. Boland had previously outlined, in a letter on March 1922, that he and his allies in the IRB “were not anxious to force a division until such time as we were satisfied of securing a majority vote.” By April, Boland believed that majority vote was his for the taking:

The organisation holds a Convention next week, at which I am certain the proposed Free State will be condemned and all those favouring it will be asked to resign. The new S.C. will, I hope, throw all its strength behind the Army.[25]

Harry Boland

Both Lynch and Boland were angling for the Supreme Council as the prize, while believing it vulnerable to a putsch from below. Giving credence to this thinking was how – going by its 1920 Constitution, the then most up-to-date version – the IRB was, if not quite democratic, then at least reasonably representative: those in its Circles, the basic unit of the organisation, would elect a Centre, who would in turn vote in Centres for County Circles and the District Boards (each Irish county being divided into two or three Districts, with cities counting as a District in themselves).

County Circles and the District Boards were grouped into the eleven Divisions encompassing the IRB’s sphere of influence: eight Divisions for Ireland, two for the south and north halves of England, and one for Scotland. Centres for the County and District Circles in each Division met to select by ballot a five-strong committee, which in turn would appoint someone to represent the Division on the Supreme Council. These eleven men, one for each Division, would co-opt four additional members, leading to a total membership of fifteen for the ruling body.

Putting Up and Shutting Up

Which meant that the Supreme Council could not be completely indifferent to lower-tier feelings, and while it claimed in the IRB Constitution that its “authority…shall be unquestioned,” reality sometimes fell short of this totalitarian assumption. The Treaty divisions of 1922 may have pushed fraternal feelings to breaking point but, even as early as 1917, the leadership could not count on unconditional loyalty.[26]

irbA case in point was when the Galway University Circle received an envoy from the Supreme Council, Patrick Callaghan, as part of the IRB’s resurgence that Ó Muirthile had prompted in Dublin. Callaghan opened the session with a criticism of Éamon de Valera, the newly-minted political dynamo of the independence movement. Callaghan did not last two minutes before Dr Pat Mullins, as the Circle Centre, shut him up with: “If that’s what you’ve come over for, you’d better get back to where you came from.”[27]

Another Mullins, Billy Mullins from Kerry, also had a snippy exchange with an IRB superior, this time during the Truce of late 1921. After meeting with Liam Deasy and Ó Muirthile, Mullins was asked by Deasy about continuing the work of their Brotherhood.

Mullins: I’ll ask you a question first. Who is responsible for carrying on the activities of the IRB now?

Deasy: I’ll answer you now. Seán Ó Muirthile.

Mullins: If that’s the case, you can count me out.[28]

(Ó Muirthile evidently had that effect on people.)

IRA Veteran Billy Mullins
Billy Mullins in later years

Mullins stayed with the Brotherhood long enough to attend a meeting in Tralee in January 1922. Twenty-five had come, an unusually high turnout according to Mullins, who was clearly used to smaller, more secretive gatherings. After a discussion on the Big Question of the Day, “the meeting finished with a motion that further inquiries be made, but the result was that nothing happened, as it never seemed to come to anything.” Still, Mullins felt that “the majority there present…were in favour of the Republic” and against the Treaty – so much, then, for the Supreme Council controlling its underlings like obedient puppets.[29]

Also present at this Tralee conclave was Dinny Daly, who came away thinking that “more or less left it was to everyone to do what they liked.” Personal connections seemed to count for more than direction from above: “When the officers went one way, the men followed them.”[30]

Paying the Piper and Calling the Tune

This is not to say that the Brotherhood simply ceased to function: perhaps to the alarm of the Supreme Council’s pro-Treaty majority, the IRB provided a convenient framework for county or provisional representatives to vent their feelings. An example of this was on the 18th of February 1922, when a passed resolution in Cork expressed approval of how the Cork County Centre and Division Boards had withdrawn their support from the IRB upper echelons over the Treaty. Meanwhile, a report from Co. Kerry proudly told of how the Supreme Council’s decision had practically no effect on its Circles there, with pro-Treaty numbers remaining negligible.[31]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, drawn by Constance Markievicz

In Dublin, Circles expressed a range of reactions, as summarised in a notebook in April 1922, from wary reserve – “that a meeting of all Dublin centres be called to discuss the circumstances of the present crisis and that a member of SC be deputed to attend and explain position” – to anger and threats to withhold subscriptions “until such time as S.C. cease to consider us as Kindergarten Kids.”[32]

Little wonder, then, that Lynch and Boland had assumed they would have the numbers to retake control of the Supreme Council. James McArdle caught the complex, even ‘love-hate’, nature of the relationship between the top and lower ends of the Brotherhood in a letter to Martin Conlon, a member of the Supreme Council. McArdle apologised in advance for his absence and that of his like-minded colleagues at an upcoming IRB session, though he hoped that Conlon:

…will be both able and willing to defend us here from any attacks that may possibly be made on us during our absence there, or any insinuation against our sincerity for the cause, for which we are now stronger than ever, now that it has again fallen to the minority to uphold.

McArdle had evidently been expecting an unfriendly reception; regardless, he was sure that:

If our own members, the C.B. [County Board] or the S.C. require any explanation from us, for our attitudes or actions in the present conflict we will be able to give them, and vindicate ourselves before any impartial [underlined in text] tribunal of the organisation still loyal to its principles.

It was a loyalty McArdle doubted was shared by the majority of the IRB. Undeterred by the numbers against him and emboldened by the righteousness of his defiance, McArdle demanded from Conlon:

…the right to know what steps – if any – that the S.C. takes from now onward as we, the rank and file of the organisation have always to pay the piper, we claim the right to call the tune, or at least be consulted as to what tune is to be called.

Not that McArdle was likely to be consulted on much by the Supreme Council, not anymore. His letter was dated to the 29th August 1922, two months and a day into the Civil War, with the address given as Kilmainham Gaol, where McArdle was an unwilling resident and POW.[33]

Kilmainham Gaol

A High Sense of Duty

“Only a high sense of duty could have driven a group of disciplined officers in such open conflict with their superiors,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue when describing the turbulence within the IRB:

They acted against a discipline all the more precious to them because it was voluntary and respected, against that almost mystical loyalty which bound them to the organisation in good times and bad.[34]

O’Donoghue could relate. After wrestling with his dual loyalties to the Brotherhood and the Cork IRA Brigade, he chose the former and went to his commanding IRA officer to resign as Brigade Adjutant. This, Tómas Mac Curtain refused to accept, insisting that O’Donoghue remain and saying nothing subsequently about the other man’s continued membership of a society he was increasingly at odds with.

Tómas Mac Curtain

Mac Curtain had walked out of prison in 1917, believing, as did many other “responsible leaders” in the independence movement that “there was no further need for a secret movement, that the IRB should be allowed to lapse, and the whole future struggle should be based on the open political and military organisations” like Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA) respectively, as O’Donoghue put it. O’Donoghue, on the other hand, respected the IRB’s singular purpose and determination to fight for Irish freedom, in contrast to the vacillating strands of thought he found in the Volunteers, many of whom believed in physical force only as a last resort – to his dismay – and sometimes not even that.

Seán O’Hegarty

Complicating things further was how the Vice-Commandant to the Cork Brigade, Seán O’Hegarty, was also the IRB County Centre, an additional authority that he was not afraid to wield. While Mac Curtain made no move to restrict the parallel command within his ranks, tensions came to a head with the unauthorised shooting and wounding of a policeman, in April 1919, by a Volunteer who claimed that the right to carry arms had been granted to him by O’Hegarty. This challenge to the Brigade chain of command could not go unanswered, though O’Donoghue was to claim the controversy had been blown “out of all proportions to its importance.”

In any case, O’Hegarty resigned as Vice-Commandant, “not a complete solution, but it was a gesture to the authority of Tómas, and it left Seán’s IRB position intact.” And it was a position jealously guarded:

Seán would not and could not be expected to abate anything of his IRB authority, but was quite willing to work on co-operation with the Volunteers provided they were on his road.

Florence O’Donoghue

O’Donoghue was able to stay on amicable terms with both Mac Curtain and O’Hegarty even as he kept a foot in each of their camps. Perhaps out of memory for his friends, O’Donoghue – in his later career as a historian – was to characterise the trouble between them as a gentlemanly dispute over honourable principle. It is possible, however, that Mac Curtain’s murder at the hands of policemen saved relations in Cork from worsening irreconcilably – and allowed the IRB to completely dominate the IRA there.[35]

By the Easter Sunday of 1921, the Brotherhood could claim a good number of leading Cork officers, many of whom met other South Munster IRB leading lights in a house at Palmerstown Park, Dublin. Presiding over it, in more ways than one, was Collins – the President of the Supreme Council – who set the agenda: the delegates were to return to their areas and expand their Circles with fresh blood of proven worth.[36]

Liam Deasy

His audience took note. “After that we put any man of importance in West Cork into the IRB,” recalled Liam Deasy.[37]

He was by then Adjutant to the West Cork IRA Brigade, having joined in 1917 while part of the Bandon Company. Tom Hales soon swore him into the IRB after convincing him of the importance of the fraternity in the upcoming struggle. From there, Deasy rose steadily in the two parallel organisations, seeing no clash of interests between attending an IRB conclave one day and an IRA GHQ strategy meeting the next.[38]

Only Silent Men

In keeping with a body concerned with gathering influence, the IRB was interested primarily in those with clout of their own to share. Elitism was the attitude as well as an objective unashamedly pursued. “Only Bn [Battalion] and Bde [Brigade] officers sworn,” recalled Tom O’Connor from Tralee, Co. Kerry. Mere company officers or below were apparently not to be bothered with.[39]

IRA Flying Column

When Patrick McDonnell wanted to induct the entirety of his East Clare Flying Column, he was dissuaded by Ernest Blythe, who advised him to be selective: “Only the very select few you want in the IRB.” It was a case of quality over quantity, and the virtue that Blythe prized most of all was taciturnity – he wanted “only silent men.” But reticence could have its drawbacks; McDonnell never informed his colleague in Clare, Michael Brennan, that he was in the IRB, and neither did Brennan let McDonnell know of his own membership. Perhaps this state of one hand not knowing what the other was up to was why, in McDonnell’s estimation, “the IRB never developed much in Clare.”[40]

Others would remember the Brotherhood in almost comical terms. When John Joe Rice met its adherents in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, in 1917, he found them gagged with “the old idea that nobody was to be trusted with anything. They were good fellows but that idea had been drummed into them for years.” It took some time, but “as soon as they got over their initial fright of things being spoken about,” a working relationship was possible. Elsewhere in Kerry, Dinny Daly considered many of his Circle in Cahirciveen to be “a queer crowd…some of them I never thought should be in the IRB.” Of particular annoyance was how they approached Daly for recruitment after his release from prison, not knowing he was already a member: “I hauled them over the coals for being slipshod about it.”

Such ineptitude, however, did not prevent the Brotherhood from being “very strong in Kerry,” in Daly’s view. “I expect that all the officers in Kerry were IRB.”[41]

The underground nature of the IRB, even by the standards of the Irish revolution, and the insularity of its insiders, even among each other, makes its power hard to gauge – even to its members. John McCoy’s promotion to Belfast IRA Brigade Adjutant prompted Paddy Rankin, the IRB Centre for Newry, to hurriedly attempt to recruit him, seemingly “afraid that if I refused to join the IRB, headquarters might not sanction my appointment as Brigade Adjutant.” Due to McCoy’s “certain moral scruples” and belief that the IRA had rendered secret societies obsolete, he declined.[42]

Paddy Rankin

Contrary to Rankin’s fears, McCoy remained as Adjutant. That he suffered no adverse effects to his IRA position made a mockery – in Seamus McKenna’s eyes, at least – of the IRB policy to seek only the best:

I understood at the time that the main function of the IRB was to control both the leadership and the activities of the Volunteer [IRA] movement from within by ensuring that senior officers were IRB men who would see that the fight for the Republic was relentlessly pursued.

However, “I cannot recall that this was effective in Belfast.”

Roger McCorley

Both the Belfast Brigade O/Cs, Seán O’Neill and his successor, Roger McCorley, kept aloof from the Brotherhood, apparently sharing McCoy’s ethical qualms; McCorley, in particular, earned McKenna’s respect as “one of the most daring and active Volunteer officers in Ireland.” In glaring contrast was Joe McKelvey, a fellow Belfast native, whose rise to O/C of the Third Northern Division, in 1921, McKenna attributed to IRB machinations despite his personal unsuitability for command. Two of the men in McKenna’s Circle made similarly poor examples by displaying “a lamentable lack of courage when the occasion for such arose.”

Of the group overall, though McKenna was a dutiful participant in its monthly get-togethers, he could not later “recall any useful purpose served by our particular Circle.” As convenient as the Brotherhood might have been before, “from 1918 onwards the organisation, in my opinion now [in 1954], did not justify its existence.”[43]

A Secondary Business?

John Joe Rice

Indeed, some struggled to remember the point at all. Boredom, even contempt, colours many a reminiscence of time inside the fraternity. “We had all been sworn in to the IRB, but we looked upon it as a kind of secondary business of no real importance,” said John Joe Rice of his fellow Kerry IRA officers. “It was, or would only be, of use if we had to go underground again. I don’t think we had circles or meetings even.”[44]

While many Volunteers highly placed in the Athlone Brigade – to choose an example – had been sworn into the IRB as well, they noticeably drew a blank about what the latter had actually done in the course of the War of Independence. Statements include:

Seumas O’Meara, O/C of the Athlone Brigade:

The organisation did not really serve any great purpose except to keep a strong backbone on the Volunteer movement. There was not, at any time, any attempt to direct Volunteer activities by the IRB in the area…When things were really hot and principally during the period of the Black and Tans, the IRB organisation became inactive and may be said to have practically ceased to exist.[45]

Henry O’Brien, Captain of the Coosan Company, First Battalion:

On the whole, the organisation did not seem any useful purpose, but it may have acted as a stiffener for the Volunteer force. When the military situation developed to the point when they became really hot and communications became impossible, the organisation kind of faded out and became inactive.[46]

David Daly, Commandant of the First Battalion:

It is hard to say what was really the objective of the organisation at this time in view of the policy of the Volunteers escept [sic] that it formed a hard core of resistance inside that organisation who would carry on the fight should the Volunteers weaken in their purpose.[47]

Frank O’Connor, Commandant of Second Battalion:

Business was of a routine nature and discussions on the existing situation in the area and the country in general took place and suggestions of what might be done to intensify the work were made. Such suggestions usually came to nothing. Looking back since, I cannot see that the organisation served any useful purpose, but the powers at headquarters seemed to think that it did.[48]

Reading all of this makes it easy to dismiss the IRB as largely a name and little else, a thing more theory than fact, or a Walter Mitty outfit compared to the IRA or Sinn Féin. A contemporary document, however, points to a more nuanced picture, one in which the Brotherhood was as capable of waxing as well as waning, and confident enough to prepare for its revival after lying dormant for months on end.

Judging an Elephant

Seán Murphy arrived in Co. Westmeath on behalf of the IRB central leadership, on the 22nd July 1921, in a tour of the Circles to be found there. He made contact with Thomas Costello and James Maguire, the Athlone and Mullingar O/Cs at the time, who were able to guide him to their societal grassroots. Meeting each cell was delayed by bad weather and sketchy communications – the latter in particular a common problem in the Irish insurgency – but, by the end, Murphy was able to draw up for his superiors a detailed breakdown of the Circles’ personnel:


On roll: 11

Present: 8

In jail: 2

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 14

Present: 10

In jail: 3

Absent: 1

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 17

Present: 14

In jail: 1

Absent: 2

Last meeting: 1920


On roll: 22

Present: 16

In jail: 3

Absent: 3

Last meeting: 11th July 1921


On roll: 7

Present: 4

In jail: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 13

Present: 3

In jail: 8

Absent: 2 (sick)

Last meeting: September 1920

(As all officers were in jail, Murphy recommended temporary appointments until elections for the roles could be held)


On roll: 10

Present: 7

In jail: 0

Excd.: 3

Absent: 0

Last meeting: October 1920


On roll: 12

Present: 2

In jail: 10

One hundred and six delegates met at the IRB County Board on the 29th July 1921, the first since October 1920. That gap of nine months was typical of Westmeath, where the various Circles had had their last proof of existence in the previous autumn before fading out of the picture – but not necessarily out of existence, for Murphy felt “confident of good results owing to the present constitution of the organisation in the county.” Arrangements were already afoot to form new cliques in Loughnavaly, Kinnegad, Killucan and Moyvose.

IRA memorial in Athlone

Longford told a similar story when Murphy travelled there next. Delays were again suffered, this time blamed on poor roads, but Murphy came away believing that the effort had again been worth it: “The condition of the organisation in the county is very favourable and ought to improve considerably in the near future.”[49]

John M. Regan

In his heroic attempt to make sense of the times, historian John M. Regan writes of how “the lack of available documentary evidence” makes for “no easy answers to the interpretative and methodological problems the IRB presents.” And that is only part of the headache, for the sources we do have are so wildly contradictory.[50]

Was the Irish Republican Brotherhood a splendid historic organisation? A sinister and manipulative cabal? A barely-there relic? An elitist pursuit or a pastime for oddballs? A democratic movement or the subversion of one? All are viewpoints put forward by contemporaries, each in a position to have known, and each like the Indian analogy of the three blind men who encountered an elephant. One touches its huge bulk and describes it as a wall, another thinks it a snake from the feel of its snout, while the third judges it to be a spear by its tusk – valid interpretations that nonetheless only capture part of the peculiar whole.

See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4


[1] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Copy Letter from Michael Collins to Mr Meagher to Australia’, IE-MA-CP-06-02-06, p. 4

[2] Ibid, ‘Sligo Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-36, pp. 2-3

[3] Ibid, p. 9

[4] Ibid, ‘Leitrim Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-03-35, p. 18

[5] University College Dublin (UCD) Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 1

[6] Ibid, p. 61

[7] Ibid, p. 16

[8] Ibid, p. 60

[9] Irish Times, 21/07/1924

[10] Ibid, 27/07/1924

[11] Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 15

[12] National Library of Ireland, Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,236; the 1920 Constitution at MS 31,233

[13] Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209, pp. 177, 229

[14] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 210, 212

[15] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 120

[16] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 367

[17] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 28

[18] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 60

[19] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 32

[20] McKenna, Seamus, (BMH / WS 1016), p. 45

[21] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 218

[22] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 264-5

[23] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 32

[24] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,240

[25] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

[26] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,233

[27] O’Malley, Galway Interviews, p. 212

[28] Ibid, Kerry Interviews, p. 62

[29] Ibid, p. 64

[30] Ibid, p. 319

[31] O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,237(2)

[32] UCD, Martin Conlon Papers, P97/16(1)

[33] Ibid, P97/11(i)

[34] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1986), pp. 194-5

[35] O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2006), pp. 58-60

[36] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973), pp. 258-9

[37] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 190

[38] Deasy, pp. 15, 258-9

[39] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 138

[40] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016), pp. 155-7

[41] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, pp. 303, 305, 319

[42] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 179

[43] McKenna, pp. 44-6

[44] O’Malley, Kerry Interviews, p. 281

[45] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 53

[46] O’Brien, Henry (BMH / WS 1308), pp. 23-4

[47] Daly, David (BMH / WS 1337), p. 28

[48] O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), p. 28

[49] Conlon Papers, P97/18(ii)

[50] Regan, John M. Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013), p. 126



Irish Times


Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973)

Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

O’Donoghue, Florence (edited by Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence: A Destiny That Shapes Our Ends (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1986)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

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

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: Clare Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2016)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Horgan, Tim) The Men Will Talk to Me: Kerry Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Comhraí, Cormac) The Men Will Talk to Me: Galway Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

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

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

Regan, John M., Myth and the Irish State (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, David, WS 1337

McKenna, Seamus, WS 1016

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Martin Conlon Papers

Richard Mulcahy Papers

National Library of Ireland

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

The Rover Type: Peadar O’Donnell and the War of Independence in Donegal and Derry, 1919-1921

‘Sublime in Theory’

For good or bad, Peadar O’Donnell never failed to leave an impression on people.

During the lull in the war between British authority in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Todd Andrews – not even twenty years of age and already a seasoned combatant – was ordered up from Dublin to Dungloe, Co. Donegal, to take charge of an IRA training camp, sometime in the latter half of 1921. A city-slicker, Andrews knew little about the county, only that it had felt its fair share of the conflict: shootings, house-burnings, attacks of police barracks, and ambushes on British troop-trains.

IRA training camp, West Waterford, 1921

It thus seemed like an obvious place to invest some time and guidance into. ‘Advancing under fire’, ‘organisation of intelligence units’, ‘use and care of small arms’, along with night-marches and how best to make use of cover – these were among the subjects Andrews prepared to drum into the fifteen men gathered before him in the Dungloe village hall. He had his doubts, however, as to how much he could get through to them, the jackeen prejudice against culchies as slow-witted and thick-tongued being hard to shake off.

Peadar O’Donnell

Besides, Andrews was painfully aware of his own deficiency, namely his rawness as a teacher, and it was with trepidation that he opened with a lesson about unit structure and communication. When this was done, he scanned the group, hoping for someone who could help turn the lecture into a dialogue, and asked the man who appeared older than the rest – at twenty-eight – for his thoughts:

He stood up immediately, pouring out a stream of words arranged in fluent, well balanced sentences full of striking imagery and laced with quotations from James Connolly.

This was rather more than Andrews had been expecting or, indeed, wanted, for if this was the standard of the class, what need would they have of him as an educator? Thankfully:

As it turned out I had no need to feel inadequate because the speaker was Peadar O’Donnell who was to become one of the most remarkable men of our generation.[1]

Tom Barry

Some acquaintances were less enthralled. Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Barry were among the Corkmen who, like Andrews, were sent to Donegal; in their case, it was in mid-1922, in order to continue the campaign against the remaining British presence in what would become Northern Ireland. O’Donoghue was to reminisced about the “lively and protracted discussions on religion, sin and nationality” between the Cork and Donegal officers. As the two eldest members, Barry and O’Donnell tended to take the lead in these IRA symposiums and were consequently held in awe by the others, including O’Donoghue.

To him, O’Donnell’s:

…vocabulary was vast and his speech eloquent, and it was a pleasure and an education to hear him airing his views on a variety of subjects.[2]

But, if O’Donnell was a jack of all trades, he could be a master of none, at least where it counted, being:

…a revolutionary thinker and writer, was of the rover type, too volatile for an efficient Volunteer officer, sublime in theory – military, economic, social, political – but in practice a wash-out. He had no control over the IRA under him and was constitutionally unfit for military campaigning of any kind, guerrilla above all.[3]

O’Donnell would have been the first to agree. “I must say I was not the military type,” he later said in an interview.[4]

‘Four Glorious Years’

Peadar O’Donnell in later years

It would be easy to take such self-abasement at face value, given how little O’Donnell is known as a soldier. As a writer and a political activist, yes, he was to have prolific careers as both in the years to come. But about his IRA service, he seems to have worked his hardest to obscure it. Not for him the reminiscences of Tom Barry, Todd Andrews or Dan Breen, whose tales of daring-do in their memoirs were to keep their names visible to contemporary times.

“It is difficult to persuade Peadar O’Donnell to talk about his military career,” noted historian Michael McInerney. He had the advantage of interviewing O’Donnell but even that familiarity yielded scant insight into what his subject had been doing during the War of Independence: “He was reluctant to talk of his own part in the national struggle until convinced that the interest in the subject was as much general as particular.”[5]

s-l300Those days were possibly still too raw to approach easily, for while “talking to Peadar O’Donnell about the ‘Four Glorious Years’ of 1918-22, one senses a deep, almost bitter disappointment in the words at the outcome of those years.” Though there was “also an exultation as he remembers the heroism and the ‘sheer genius of a whole people in action’,” O’Donnell stayed tight-lipped about his own actions.[6]

Maybe O’Donnell was just a modest man. Or perhaps that time had been too complicated to fully – or easily – explain.

Be that as it may, there was nothing of the shrinking violet or indecisive intellectual when, in December 1920, O’Donnell spoke at the Shamrock Hall in Derry. His intent, he told the IRA Volunteers who used the building as their base, was to find recruits and bring them over the county border to his native Donegal as a flying column.[7]

At least one man present, Seamus McCann, had met O’Donnell before, when the latter worked as an organiser for the Derry branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), back in 1918. “We knew he was alright,” recalled McCann; after all, he and O’Donnell had cooperated in smuggling weapons for the national cause, starting with two pistols and a few bags of gelignite at McCann’s shop in 1919. Though nothing came of a plan of O’Donnell’s in 1920 to rob a police patrol of their guns, he continued using McCann’s premises as a stash-house:

Detonators and gelignite came to my place for him from Scotland; I’d say three times in all, the last being in a suitcase of stuff around the end of 1919 or early 1920.[8]

By IRA standards, O’Donnell was a well-travelled man, as recognised by Joe Sweeney, a Donegal IRA commander, who used him to transport munitions. On one such occasion, late in 1919, it was bombs from Dublin to Donegal, and on others:

Early in 1920 I asked him to go to Scotland to organise the help which Donegal men in the mines there were attempting to give in the way of explosives. I sent him across three times, I think, around St Patrick’s Day 1920 and the last certainly in July 1920.

“His work was extremely useful,” Sweeney added. O’Donnell had earned his trust when, at the end of 1920, he suggested returning to Derry, whose revolutionary landscape he was familiar with, and coming back with a unit of his own to Sweeney’s territory in West Donegal. Sweeney gave this idea his blessing, and off O’Donnell went to turn theory into practice.[9]

Derry City

The Column Forms

O’Donnell’s recruitment drive in the Shamrock Hall paid off in the nine Volunteers who offered themselves for his venture. As part of a flying column, they would be expected to bear the brunt of the fighting against the Crown forces in Ireland but, then, Derry already was a warzone.

The city had not exactly been peaceful before, but things escalated with an ambush of two policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at the General Post Office in November 1920, wounding one. The resulting stop-and-searches of pedestrians by police and British soldiers grew into arson and shootings, and were matched by IRA reprisals of a similar nature.

Irish civilians held up by Black-and-Tans

“There was the wildest scenes of terrorism and destruction yet experienced in parts of Derry,” reported one newspaper under the headline DERRY NIGHT OF TERROR.[10]

Perhaps the Derry men who agreed to go to Donegal did so for an escape as much as anything.

First, they were careful to take with them the necessary tools, as O’Donnell described: “In December 1920 we brought 22 rifles out of Derry. We dug them up in a briar in a city. They were in quite good condition with 200 rounds for each of them.”

One presumes permission was obtained from the Derry IRA command; certainly, of the accusations to come against O’Donnell, none involved theft. O’Donnell was characteristically modest when recalling the inauguration of the column, saying that “it shows how hard up they were for leaders when they had to send a man like me out in charge of a column.”[11]

Maybe. In the months to come, O’Donnell’s credentials would be a matter of controversy. All the same, a rifles was a prized weapon, and ammunition of any kind a valuable resource, so this contribution by Derry showed considerable investment in the new column, as well as faith in its commandant.

The Column Departs

Seamus McCann

For now, any doubt lay in the future, and the only question worth asking was how to get out of Derry. This was not a simple matter, as British soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment were guarding the roads leading out of the city. The IRA men were able to sneak out during the night, though three of them – McCann, James McKee and Tom Sullivan – got lost in the dark. Separated from the rest, the men, as McCann recalled:

…tramped near the main road until we came to near Letterkenny. It was now beginning to get clear in the morning so we went into an old coal shed near the Post Bridge and left our rifles down and rested on some straw for a short while.

McCann ventured out to Letterkenny and made contact with a friend and fellow rebel there, who arranged for a car to pick up the stray trio and drive them to the family in whose house the rest of the column had stopped. After spending the following night there, two cars were procured for the rest of the way, though they were delayed at Glendowan by its ruined bridge. The IRA in this instance had become a victim of its own success:

At this time many bridges on main roads were blown up by the IRA and trenches were also cut in the main roads to obstruct motor traffic by crown forces.

There was nothing else to do but disembark from the vehicles and march through the pouring rain, ignoring as best they could the growing blisters on their feet, until they came to the village of Derryhenney. There they stayed the night before finally reaching West Donegal, on the night of the new year, the 1st January 1921.[12]

Dungloe, Co. Donegal

While resting their legs in an old house in Dungloe, the men received word that a stranger – always a source of interest – had arrived by train and was now staying in a local hotel. It was a good enough cause for action, according to McCann:

Three members of the column then proceeded to Sweeney’s Hotel [no relation to Joe Sweeney, presumably] and brought this man to where we were billeted. The stranger turned out to be a British military officer. He was carrying a gun which we took from him.[13]

The man had attempted to draw this pistol when the three men – including Frank O’Donnell, Peadar’s brother – approached him during lunch, but he was quickly disarmed and hauled away for questioning. After claiming to be a harmless civil servant, he admitted his true identity as an enemy officer while insisting that he was only in the area to investigate claims made against the British garrison. Whatever the truth, he was released that night when a Unionist businessman intervened to the IRA authority on his behalf.[14]

Sweeney’s Hotel (today), Dungloe, Co. Donegal

Things were not so ruthless in Donegal for prisoners to be killed in cold blood, even if there was a war on. Indeed, Frank O’Donnell preferred disarming policemen of their guns than shooting them. His approach required more courage, he told the others.[15]

The Column Begins

After their arrival, the column had three days of rest at the townland of Crovegh, four miles from Dungloe, before news reached them, on the 4th January 1921, that a squad of Black-and-Tans were heading towards Dungloe. As it was market day, the column members, joined by the domestic IRA company under the command of Joe Sweeney, cleared the village streets and took up position. Two women kept the men going with hot tea as they waited, guns at the ready, day turning into the night, but the Tans never showed.

IRA members (in training session)

A second report, this time of Tans coming from a different direction, prompted the column to set up an ambush along the road from Dungloe to Crolly’s Bridge. It was raining heavily, but there the men remained for the whole day until, with the foe again nowhere to be seen, they withdrew to O’Donnell’s family home at Munroe. His mother gave them the consolation of a warm meal and a place by the turf-fire to dry off.[16]

Todd Andrews was also to meet Brigid O’Donnell and paid tribute to her as “a woman of very fine quality, shrewd and full of common sense, who was content with her life despite what must have been a hard struggle to rear her children.” It was easy, Andrews thought, to see where her son had obtained his intelligence and charm.[17]

Country homes, Co. Donegal

Later that month, on the 11th January 1921, the column was preparing for sleep in their assigned shack when its commander came in with a surprise. “Boys, put on your boots,” O’Donnell announced. “A troop train is on its way to Burtonport!”

It was just one of the many quirks of the war that, after the wasted efforts on seeking an ambush, opportunity had fallen into their laps. As McCann noted:

In the other attempted operations where we lay an ambush, we had taken considerable pains in planning the layout of the scene of the operation but, in the case of the train ambush at Meenbanad, we had no time to prepare plans.

Arriving in Dungloe, the column were met by Sweeney’s men – once again, this was to be a joint operation. They hurried together, stopping at a spot about 150 yards from Meenaband Railway Station. The usual method of train-attacks was to lift the rails beforehand but, lacking the time, they instead loaded large stones on to the tracks and then lined up on either side. The Donegal men had shotguns, while the Derry column members carried the more prestigious rifles and hand-grenades, a sign of the elevated status such units had in the IRA, as compensation for the hardships and risks undertaken.

IRA Flying Column

The Column Fights

The train rumbled into sight and range before too long and the ambushers opened fire, the ones with bombs endeavouring to lob them through carriage-windows. Soldiers on board returned shots, forcing the assailants back, and the train broke through the obstacles in its path.

The sole loss to the column, besides spent ammunition, was Willie Cullen, who became separated his comrades in the retreat and was picked by a British patrol. He was arrested but saved his rifle by hiding it in time, the weapon being gratefully recovered afterwards – rifles were a valuable commodity, after all.

Despite this lacklustre result, the column pulled off a second ambush of a train soon after. The men had moved from Crovagh, across the mountain to Loughkeel, where they stayed with a family. Without such hospitality, the war would have ground to a halt long ago. Hearing of the troop-train to West Donegal, O’Donnell brought his men to Crolly Railway Station, and arranged them on the hills overlooking it. A scout was sent out to the station to ascertain if there were civilians on board the incoming train.

Gweedore Railway Station, Co. Donegal

When the agreed signal for a negative was received, the operation could go ahead:

As soon as the train arrived within effective distance for rifle fire from our positions, we opened a rapid fire on the train. This fire was maintained until the train had passed through the hill from which our men were firing.

The column moved base again, this time up the mountains to reduce the chances of discovery. After two ambushes in quick succession, the pace slowed to a crawl again. Attempts to waylay British patrols on the road came to nothing when the targets failed to appear. Two months passed and the column made a move on Falcarragh RIC Barracks in March 1921.

The former RIC barracks in Falcarragh, Co. Donegal (now a visitors’ centre)

In preparation, a gun-cotton charge of explosives was created and attached to a wooden frame. Under O’Donnell’s direction, the column waited until dark and then surrounded the stronghold. Two men were sent ahead across the wall, into the yard, with the explosives passed over to them. The frame was placed against the gable and lit, the resulting detonation causing a lot of noise but little damage.

The Volunteers proceeded anyway with their assault as they opened fire on the still-intact building, while the defenders returned the shots and sent up Verey lights to call for reinforcements:

The exchange of fire lasted for about 30 minutes and then we withdrew from the attack, as rifle fire was an ineffective means of forcing the surrender of the barrack garrison.

From there, the column moved to a number of different sites before ending up at their old digs in Crovegh. With three operations under their collective belt, the men could congratulate themselves on a respectable run and O’Donnell on a promotion to O/C of the Second Donegal Brigade, giving him authority over the north-west quarter of the county as well as Derry. Perhaps it was to assert himself over his latter responsibility, or because he was itching for a change, that O’Donnell left for Derry at the end of March 1921, taking McCann with him as his right-hand man.[18]

A Bloody Night

Getting to the city was delayed by the same problems as when they left: the damage done to the routes by the guerrilla campaign, from collapsed bridges and trenched roads, meant that O’Donnell and McCann had to go by foot until the final stretch, where they were able to obtain a pair of bicycles.

The walls of Derry City

O’Donnell wasted no time once in the city: the following night, on the Friday of the 1st April, he met the men of the Derry IRA, again in the Shamrock Hall. Guns and grenades were allocated to the assembled Volunteers, the strategy being to being to spring simultaneous assaults in different parts of the city. With orders to shoot any RIC personnel on sight, McCann set forth, accompanied by a second Derry native:

We had walked up to the top of Great James Street where I noticed the RIC man for whom I was looking coming walking meeting me, along with a civilian. I waited for him at Creggan Street where I shot him with my .45 revolver. He was Sergeant Higgins.[19]

The assassin was described by the Derry Journal as “a very respectably dressed young man, wearing a raincoat and cap” who fled the scene. Aid was called to the stricken Higgins as he lay in a pool of blood, his brain visible through the hole in his head. Though the policeman was carried to hospital, he died three hours later without regaining consciousness.

Creggan Street (today), Derry

At the same time as Higgins’ mortal wounding, bombs were hurled at the army post by the City Electrical Station, wounding three soldiers on duty, with two sufficiently injured to be removed for medical care, to be joined by Patrick Lafferty. The 34-year-old shipyard worker had been shot in the left knee in Asylum Road, though why he was targeted is unclear.

Almost immediately after these triple strikes, more gunshots and explosives were heard coming from Leckey Road, where the police barracks came under attack in an exchange of bullets between the garrison and assailants that lasted for three quarters of an hour, in contrast to the previously swift hit-and-run incidents. Constable Michael Kenny was critically injured by a bullet passing through the window on the barracks’ first landing, while a bomb fragment wounded Constable McLaughlin.

Two RIC policemen

Throughout the night, other shots were fired in different parts of the city. Two more casualties, both inadvertent, were reported: an army private, wounded in the wrist while reaching for his rifle, with another private, J. Wright, fatally shot from behind by a panicky colleague.

Recovering from their surprise, soldiers and policemen soon flooded the streets, holding up passers-by to search for incriminating arms. Determined not to repeat Friday’s debacle, the military laid out barbed wire coils across Shipquay and Castle Streets, while soldiers patrolled the streets, reinforced by a pair of armoured cars. Though gunfire and explosives were heard throughout that Saturday night, the carnage of the evening before was not repeated, save in Leckey Road again, which suffered two fires at different times, one in a painters’ shop and then the other in a marine store.

Property damage aside, the losses of Friday night were two dead and seven wounded, two of the latter tally being civilians. By Monday, the Derry Journal was able to report that “the city was peaceable last night.”[20]

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers and Irish civilians

After shooting Higgins, McCann had rejoined O’Donnell in the Christian Brothers School where the latter was hiding. Others arrived to report to O’Donnell on the success of the multi-pronged operation, and to warn about the increased British presence outside. Despite the added danger, O’Donnell and McCann were able to slip out of Derry, back to their column in Donegal.[21]

O’Donnell was to return to a considerable amount of hot water. He had struck a bloody riposte against the enemy, and no one would be more enraged than his own side.

Unclean Air

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Gearóid O’Sullivan, as Adjutant-General of the IRA GHQ in Dublin, was to have his hands full in dealing with the flow of accusations coming out of Donegal and Derry. “I have your report re suppression of Commandant O’Donnell,” he wrote to Frank Carney on the 24th May 1921. “I regret very much that I have been sorely disappointed in the turn which things took in that area since you took over command. However, all these matters will be investigated at a later date.”

Carney had been promoted to O/C of the First Northern Division, giving him overall control of the Donegal-Derry units, but this good fortune was followed by bad when he was arrested. “I am sorry for your ill luck – getting into the hands of the enemy,” O’Sullivan added.[22]

In light of this reversal, Carney’s post would be filled by Joe Sweeny, who was already O/C of the First Brigade in north-west Donegal. To Sweeney, O’Sullivan wrote:

I have received an extensive amount of correspondence on the position in the 1st Northern Division, resulting in disagreements between the late O/C [Carney], Commandant of Derry City and the Commandant of the 2nd Brigade [O’Donnell].

Sweeney was informed that he was to replace Carney, with O’Donnell remaining in charge of the Second Brigade, including authority over the Derry battalion. Meanwhile, GHQ would be sending up an officer to Derry to untangle the situation as best he could.[23]

O’Donnell had already dispatched a letter of his own on the 15th May to present his side of the story. The source of the friction between him and Carney was another dispute, this one in Derry, where the women of Cumann na mBan and Patrick Shiels, the Derry O/C, were at loggerheads. Hoping to “clean the air”, as he put it, O’Donnell approached both sides for a hearing.

Cumann na mBan members

Although initially bias towards Shiels, perhaps as one male IRA commander to another, his sympathy turned in favour of the women. Cumann na mBan had a safe-house in Derry for medical treatment, yet when one of O’Donnell’s men was wounded in the hand, none of the other Volunteers would take the victim there, so deep was the divide. Their own attempts at first aid were so inept as to be akin to torture. Surely cooperation between the men of the Derry IRA and the women of Cumann na mBan could only be in everyone’s best interest, and O’Donnell hoped he could bring about a fresh start.

To the contrary, Shiels complained to Carney, then at liberty, about what he saw as O’Donnell’s meddling. When O’Donnell wrote to Carney with a request for guidelines on how Cumann na mBan should be treated, he received no answer, only a curt summons to Derry. Ill with a chill – which he attributed to crossing a river at night for an ambush – O’Donnell delayed until he could drag himself out of bed to make the journey.

Donegal mountains

While en route to Derry:

I attempted it but ran into a party of military, was spotted by a peeler, and refused to halt and broke off through the fields with a party of military in pursuit. My companion was captured. I was shot through the right shoulder and left hand and I had my right arm broken but managed to escape.

Finding himself suspended from command on Carney’s orders, bereft of explanation, O’Donnell could only plead to Dublin for a fair hearing: “It certainly will mean much to the Volunteer organisation in the county if GHQ will investigate facts and decide which of us is in the wrong.”[24]

Doing an Act

Joe Sweeney

O’Donnell was to receive this investigation; unfortunately, it only made things worse for him. When Liam Archer arrived in Derry on behalf of the Dublin leadership, he arranged to meet Sweeney and O’Donnell at the village of Churchill, Co. Donegal. Sweeney was already present when Archer came at 5 pm, while O’Donnell did not appear until an hour later, his excuse being a detour he had had to make to avoid a RIC patrol. Not that Archer believed this, as there had been no such sign of enemy presence in the area, so one source told him.

As Archer had to be back in Derry by 8 pm, he did not have a lot of time to ask questions, much to his annoyance. O’Donnell pleaded ignorance about the present controversy, again pointing to his efforts at mediation between Cumann na mBan and the Derry Volunteers as its probable cause. Again, Archer was not buying it. “There is no evidence that this has anything to do with the recent trouble,” he wrote in his report to GHQ, on the 3rd June:

On the other hand the grounds for dissatisfaction existing among the other officers I met are very definite. It is felt that this man was appointed to his present position by HQ owing to a complete misapprehension. As I cannot know whether HQ is conversant with this man’s story, it will be necessary for me to recount it as recd., from Comdt Sweeney and the O.C. Derry.

While working in Derry for the ITGWU, O’Donnell had apparently tried to form his own Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to the point of poaching IRA members. This only went so far before O’Donnell decided to throw his lot in with the IRA instead.[25]

As the ITGWU and the IRA were not always on amiable terms, this was a serious charge. In his commentary on Archer’s findings, O’Sullivan recalled the past rivalry in Derry, and that “if O’Donnell was the man who was mixed up in this trouble I can understand how the difficulty has arisen.”[26]

Group photo of ITGWU officials, including James Connolly (far left, standing) and Jim Larkin (front row seated, second from right)

Interestingly, there is another account of O’Donnell attempting the same, except in a different Northern county, which ended in much the same way as in Derry:

A small section of the Citizen Army was in existence in Monaghan town in 1920 for some time. Peadar O’Donnell was in Monaghan in 1919 in connection with Labour trouble, and I think it was Peadar who organised the Citizen Army then. This section of the Citizen Army came over to the Volunteers in a body one night and were accepted by us.[27]

Fittingly for a man who would become known for his socialist writings and advocacy, O’Donnell had been a class warrior long before fighting for Ireland, which he attributed to the example of an uncle in the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) while overseas in the United States. Despite his later commitment to the example of James Connolly, O’Donnell was not impressed on both occasions of seeing the great man in Dublin, where O’Donnell was training to be a teacher.[28]

James Connolly

Each time, Connolly had been in the centre of trouble; the first, being jeered at with other ICA men on North George Street by some women, the second when speaking in Phoenix Park in favour of suffragettes when a group of women – again – pelted him with rotten fruit. Undeterred by this sort of challenge, O’Donnell would drop his teaching post – which he disliked anyway – and apply for work at Liberty Hall. His role as a full-time union organiser took him to counties like Derry and Monahan, giving credence to the stories about his ICA activism.[29]

“Early in 1919, I left my job as a trade union organiser,” O’Donnell later wrote. “I became fully committed to the Volunteers.”[30]

It was in Monaghan that O’Donnell proved this dedication in the attack on Ballytrain RIC Barracks in February 1920. He contributed a case of revolvers from Derry – which had perhaps been stored in McCann’s shop – as well as his own prowess, being part of the team that dug beneath a gable for a mine to be inserted, forcing the police garrison to surrender before detonation. After this baptism of fire, O’Donnell turned his attention back to Donegal.[31]

Wrecked interior of Ballytrain RIC Barracks, Co. Monaghan

Already he had had a career with a lot of twists and turns, as befitting his nature as the ‘rover type’. Little wonder, then, that by the time Michael O’Donoghue met him in mid-1922, “Peadar…was accounted ‘Red’ in Ulster” and not always taken entirely seriously:

His assertion that he always said his night prayers, or rather, endeavoured to direct his mind towards God and heaven each night, met with some incredulity. Peadar was a jocular dissembler and it was never easy to detect when he was ‘doing an act’.[32]

It was not all fun and games. According to some, O’Donnell’s promotion to O/C of the Second Battalion was owed to him ‘doing an act’, an allegation that Archer took the time to detail at length in his scathing report.

A Jocular Dissembler?

O’Donnell had suggested to Sweeney, sometime in late 1920 – so the story went – that he could obtain munitions in Dublin through his ICA links. Sweeney provided an address in the city to contact GHQ, which O’Donnell used to attend a high-level IRA meeting and pass himself off as the official delegate from Donegal. This was enough to get himself promoted to command of the Second Brigade, something not intended by Sweeney.

If true, and Archer seemed to believe it was, it was understandable that the rest of the Donegal-Derry officers would feel:

…that an injustice has been done, by that appointment to this position, of a man who is only some six months a member of the IRA; who was an organiser for an organisation regarded as being unfriendly to the IRA; who possesses little volunteer experience, and whose ability has not yet been proven.

Archer listed other complaints: dispatches intended for the First Brigade that passed through the Second’s area would arrive opened, something which O’Donnell professed himself unable to explain. Even if that was not O’Donnell’s fault, his recent work in Derry in April 1921 undoubtedly caused resentment as he had apparently not consulted Shiels beforehand.

In addition, Volunteers under O’Donnell’s authority had robbed a couple of banks in response to Carney’s instructions to raise funds by ‘collection or otherwise.’ The men who committed these thefts had placed a wide interpretation on the words ‘or otherwise’. O’Donnell defended the robberies by saying that he had understood the orders in the same way.

IRA men

Even O’Donnell’s wounding on active service was held against him in Archer’s narration:

The fact that the O/C Bde was shot, running away from an enemy patrol of six private soldiers, without any attempt at a fight on the part of him or his two companions, has seriously damaged his reputation as a commander.

As if calling witnesses for the prosecution, Archer quoted the opinions of others involved. The Derry officers regarded O’Donnell as “untrustworthy and incompetent, and matters have now reached a point where, if he remains in command, the O/C Derry will probably refuse to serve under him any longer and request transfer to another area.” Sweeney was only a little more lenient in his assessment that O’Donnell was “well-meaning but is impractical.”

In all this, O’Donnell had only himself to blame, according to Archer:

Owing to the short space of time I had with O/C No 2, and to the attitude of ignorance he adopted with regard to the cause of the trouble, I have heard practically nothing in his defence. He had held no Brigade council since he entered his duties, and it is probable that a lot of the existing trouble is due to a lack of contact between the O/C and his officers.

Sweeney had suggested that the Derry battalion be treated as a separate unit for the time being, though Archer was to advise against that in his communique. Instead, O’Donnell should be replaced by Shiels, who Archer considered “a much superior man” in terms of ability and personality. Hierarchy in general should be tightened, with the confusing tendency for one man to do the work of several posts to be stopped.

IRA members with rifles

As to whether these reforms would be implemented, Archer was cautious, showing more than a hint of the big city man looking down on bumpkins: “In making the above recommendations, I would draw to your notice that I have little experience of country officers and I may be expecting more than is the rule.”[33]

Question Marks

Ernie O’Malley

One detail Archer forgot to mention, or thought it unimportant, was that Sweeney and O’Donnell were second cousins. Judging by the former’s remarks about the latter, nepotism did not appear to be one vice practised by the Donegal IRA. The kinsmen were close enough to be interviewed together by Ernie O’Malley in 1949 but, despite such familiarity, a certain contempt laced their words about each other.[34]

That the two men chose opposing sides in the Civil War did not help. O’Donnell had even been a prisoner of his cousin during this turbulent period, detained in Finner Camp which came under Sweeney’s authority in Donegal. A captive O’Donnell had been terrified of Tom Glennon, a hard-edged warden in the camp, comparing Glennon’s brutish ways with Sweeney “whose nature, while it was thin in feeling was clean in its hardness,” a backhanded compliment if there was ever one.[35]

For Sweeney’s part, he blamed O’Donnell for the failure to take Glenties RIC Barracks on two separate occasions. The first, in April 1921, almost ended in disaster, as Sweeney recounted to O’Malley:

Peadar O’Donnell had got hold of an old cannon. He had arranged that a blacksmith…make cannon balls for this. The cannon was brought into position with a donkey and cart. It was to blow in the front door of the barracks, but when fired it blew itself to pieces and blew the walls backwards. Luckily no one was killed or injured.

The second attempt, in May, failed on account of O’Donnell’s warning his friends in Glenties village beforehand, with the leakage making its way to police ears.[36]

RIC Barracks (Boyle, Co. Roscommon)

And yet, according to McCann, O’Donnell was not in Donegal at the time of the April attack, having temporarily left for Dublin. Sweeney had been in charge and it was his idea to mount a Colt machine-gun on a tripod for added firepower. When Sweeney gave the order to attack, the machine-gun failed to work, and the remaining rifle-fire from the IRA was not enough to subdue the barracks.[37]

Two similar stories, with one major difference in regards to responsibility.

Given the contradictory versions in regards to O’Donnell’s conduct, it was unsurprising that, after reading Archer’s summary of his time in Donegal, the IRA Director of Organisation, Eamonn Price, would admit bewilderment on what to think of it all:

I do not find it very easy to make up my mind from the report as to what would be the best thing to do. The whole difficulty is that O’Donnell’s appointment appears to have been a mistake. That is true, whether the statements regarding his record are correct or not. He does not appear to possess the qualities necessary for dealing with a Brigade command.[38]


I am inclined to discount some of the things that are said against the O/C of the 2nd Brigade. The Officer from Headquarters [Archer] appears to have been prejudiced against him from the beginning owing to his unpunctuality and possibly owing to having heard the other side of the story.[39]

As for the most serious allegation, that O’Donnell had essentially conned his way into command, Price was inconclusive: “The statement…as to how O’Donnell got in touch in Dublin I am not in a position to appraise.”[40]

Price decided to wait for a fuller picture before rendering final judgement. For now, a compromise: O’Donnell was to continue as O/C of the Second Brigade, albeit over a diminished area, as the Derry battalion was to be a standalone unit as proposed. Both O’Donnell and Shiels were to report separately to Sweeney as Divisional Commander, which would at least keep them out of each other’s way.

“This is to be only a temporary arrangement pending further developments,” Price wrote in correspondence with his Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, on the 21st June 1921.[41]

Red Peadar

Todd Andrews

Nonetheless, that was how the situation stood when, less than a month later, the Truce on the 11th July 1921 permitted a breathing space in the war. O’Donnell remained in charge and in Donegal, during which time he attended the officers’ training camp where he made the acquaintance of the Dublin envoy sent to tutor them. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between Todd Andrews and O’Donnell, despite the age gap of over eight years, when the latter “with his great kindness and comprehension took me in hand over any difficulties I encountered,” allaying his nerves and enabling him to finish the course as intended.

After which, the pair toured the countryside in a car, allowing Andrews to catch a glimpse of rural life, in the cultivated fields between stone walls and the homes of friends that O’Donnell dropped in on:

We were invited into the tiny kitchens for the ritual cup of tea with home-made bread. The people were obviously very poor but it was a different kind of poverty from what I was so familiar with in Dublin. However small and sparsely furnished the kitchens, which also served as living rooms, they were clean and tidy.

Compared to the slums of his home city and the hopelessness they bred, “what struck me most forcefully was the atmosphere of independent self-reliance,” though Andrews did not doubt that the means of these country people were also very scant.

Man and donkey carrying turf, Co. Donegal

It was an insight into a part of the country in whose name Andrews had been fighting, but which, in retrospection, he knew little about. O’Donnell endeavoured to fill in these mental gaps while proposing some solutions of his own, peppering his talk with phrases like ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers’ and ‘the expropriation of the landlords’, the novelty of which left Andrews bewildered – and intrigued. Here was a way of looking at the national question he had never considered before.

What I heard from Peadar depicted in my mind at least an alternative future for Ireland which someone might want to create. While it lasted and while Peadar’s spell was on me, I was fascinated by these ideas.

While it lasted’ – this enthusiasm remained only until the two men parted company at Letterkenny Station, and Andrews took the train back south. Gone was the class warrior O’Donnell had tried to mould, and his pupil reverted to being, first and foremost, a soldier for Ireland. O’Donnell always made an impression, even if, however sublime the theory, leaving an impact was more complicated.[42]


[1] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), pp. 196-8

[2] O’Donoghue, Michael (BMH / WS 1741, Part 2), p. 95

[3] Ibid, p. 108

[4] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 24

[5] McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974, pp. 31, 41

[6] Ibid, p. 31

[7] McCann, Seamus (BMH / WS 763), pp. 10-1

[8] Military Service Pensions Collection, MSP34REF60300, ‘O’Donnell, Peadar’, p. 16

[9] Ibid, p. 28

[10] McCann, pp. 6-8

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 23-4

[12] McCann, pp. 11-2

[13] Ibid, pp. 12-3

[14] Breslin, Patrick (BMH / WS 1448), pp. 19-20

[15] O’Malley, p. 25

[16] McCann, pp. 13-4

[17] Andrews, p. 199

[18] McCann, pp. 14-8

[19] Ibid, pp. 18-9

[20] Derry Journal, 04/04/1921

[21] McCann, p. 19

[22] UCD Archives, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 324

[23] Ibid, p. 328

[24] Ibid, pp. 329-33

[25] Ibid, pp. 346-7

[26] Ibid, p. 344

[27] Donnelly, Thomas (BMH / WS 519), p. 3

[28] MacEoin, p. 24

[29] Ibid, p. 22

[30] Ibid, p 23

[31] MSP34REF60300, pp. 16, 33

[32] O’Donoghue, p. 95

[33] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 348-51

[34] O’Malley, p. 22

[35] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 104

[36] O’Malley, p. 30

[37] McCann, pp. 21-2

[38] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 344

[39] Ibid, p. 345

[40] Ibid, p. 344

[41] Ibid, p. 322

[42] Andrews, pp. 198-200



Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979)

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

McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974)

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military Statements

Breslin, Patrick, WS 1448

Donnelly, Thomas, WS 519

McCann, Seamus, WS 763

O’Donoghue, Michael, WS 1741


Derry Journal

 UCD Archives

Mulcahy Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

O’Donnell, Peadar, MSP34REF60300

Cast Adrift: Joseph Sweeney, Charlie Daly and the Start of the Civil War in Donegal, 1922

Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,

I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,

I let you in, I held you close,

My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.

(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)

Taken Aback

Joe Sweeney

It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.

While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.

Seán Mac Eoin

A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.

After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:

That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.

An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.

Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.

IRA men from Cashel, Co. Tipperary

But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.[1]

As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.[2]

Sweeney’s Journey

The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.

Students of St Enda’s performing on school grounds

“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”[3]

From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.[4]

wm_dsc_0417bUpon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”[5]

These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.[6]

IRA Flying Column

An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.[7]

The Treaty

Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.

treatyToo cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.

Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.

Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.

Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.[8]

The National Concert Hall, Dublin, originally the National University, where the Treaty debates were held

If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.

Margaret Pearse

The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.[9]

De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.

Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.[10]

But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”[11]

Pro-Treaty propaganda poster

Divided Divisions

But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.

Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.[12]

Seán Lehane and Charlie Daly (standing, left to right), with three other IRA men

Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.

An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.

Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:

In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.

On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.[13]

Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.[14]

Free Staters
Free State soldiers on parade

Stranger in a Strange Land

So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.

Drumboe Castle

The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’

In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.

“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”[15]

Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:

I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.

Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.[16]

IRA men

Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.[17]

These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.[18]

Free State soldiers with a wounded man

“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”[19]

Not an Easy Job

Charlie Daly

When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”[20]

In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.

The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.[21]

It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.[22]

It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”[23]

IRA men

Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:

…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.

Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.[24]

Royal Irish Constabulary patrol

Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:

Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.

Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”[25]

Truce and Tension

Cathal Brugha

Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the  nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”[26]

Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”[27]

As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.[28]

Parnell Square, Dublin, site of the fomer Vaughan Hotel

Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.

Éamon de Valera

The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”

Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”[29]

He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”

Eoin O’Duffy

With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”

As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”[30]

A Crooked Correspondence

It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”[31]

mulcahy046Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”[32]

It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”[33]

Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:

…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].

As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:

…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’[34]

O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:

As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.[35]

Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.[36]

‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’

Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:

Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.[37]

So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.

Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”[38]

Michael Collins

Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.

“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.[39]

It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.[40]

The Four Courts, Dublin

But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”[41]

Via Media

Liam Lynch

A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.

“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.[42]

Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.[43]

Ernie O’Malley

But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”[44]

This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.[45]

Illustration of Sir Henry Wilson’s assassination in June 1922

Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.

‘Confusion and Alarm’

If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.

Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.[46]

IRA members, including Liam Lynch (front row, fourth from left), at one of the IRA conventions in Dublin, 1922

“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”[47]

Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.[48]

IRA men

With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.

“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”

Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”

The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.

The explosion of the Four Courts, Dublin, July 1922

An Existing Peace

Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:

We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.

Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.

The Freemasons’ Hall in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, and the base of the anti-Treaty IRA

Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:

Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.

So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.[49]

Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”[50]

Free State soldiers with armoured vehicle

‘Seizing Every Advantage’

The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:

…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.

The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.

Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.

Country farmhouses in Co. Donegal

The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.[51]

After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.

IRA men

Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.

What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?

O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.[52]


Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:

Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.

To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.

Free State soldiers

Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:

Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.

O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:

A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.

Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.

For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.[53]


The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.[54]

Churchill, Co. Donegal, today

“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”[55]

O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.

Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.

Anti-Treaty poster

“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:

Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.

As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.

IRA members

Plans Afoot

O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:

[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.

To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.

“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”

Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.

O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”[56]

A (presumably staged) photograph of an execution during the Civil War

When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.

While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”

masscard2-673x1024Slaying a man in the heat of battle is one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”[57]

See also: A Debatable Ambush: The Newtowncunningham Incident in Co. Donegal, May 1922


[1] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8

[2] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34

[3] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 38-9, 53

[4] Ibid, pp. 64-5, 71

[5] Ibid, p. 75

[6] Ibid, p. 133

[7] Ibid, pp. 160-2

[8] Ibid, pp. 264-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 268-9

[10] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 211

[11] Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) (Accessed 29/01/2019), p. 41

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741 – Part II), p. 47

[13] Ibid, p. 109

[14] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[15] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[16] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[17] Ibid, 12/05/1922, 19/05/1922

[18] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[19] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, pp. 68-9

[20] Ibid, p. 68

[21] Ibid, p. 70

[22] Ibid, p. 53

[23] Ibid, p. 62

[24] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 7-9

[25] Ibid, p. 15

[26] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 55

[27] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 366

[28] O’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009), p. 165

[29] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 56

[30] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[31] Ibid, p. 59

[32] Ibid, p. 64

[33] Ibid, p. 65

[34] Ibid, pp. 66-7

[35] Ibid, p. 67

[36] Ibid, p. 68

[37] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204

[38] Ibid, p. 205

[39] Ibid

[40] Andrews, p. 238

[41] Prendergast, Seán (BMH / WS 755 – Part 3), p. 192

[42] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 118

[43] Griffith and O’Grady, p. 275

[44] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 33

[45] Ibid

[46] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-7

[47] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 71

[48] Ibid, p. 72

[49] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-8

[50] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[51] O’Donoghue, pp. 118-20

[52] Ibid, pp. 120-2

[53] Ibid, pp. 122-5

[54] Ibid, p. 126

[55] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[56] O’Donoghue, pp. 126-9

[57] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 305-6



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

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

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

O’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Prendergast, Seán, WS 755

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721


Derry Journal

Military Service Pensions Collection

Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) (Accessed 29/01/2019)

A Debatable Ambush: The Newtowncunningham Incident in Co. Donegal, May 1922

The First Week of the Month





The multiple incidents throughout the morning of the 4th May 1922, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries in Co. Donegal, did not appear at first glance to be connected. That they were stand-alone events, independent of each other, would have been a reasonable assumption, given that these were merely a fraction of the total number of violent outbreaks that had occurred throughout Ireland in recent times.

For that week alone, the Derry Journal reported scenes in Dublin, Belfast, Kilkenny, Derry, Tyrone and Mullingar. Those Ulster-based acts were due to sectarian hatreds, always simmering beneath the surface of Northern life. As for those elsewhere, more secular passions were to blame as tensions between the two rival factions within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that had been brewing since the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922 boiled over.

IRA members in the streets of Dublin, 1922

The four headlines above, however, differed from the others in that they had been born out of an attempt to solve both problems, burying the IRA divide by intervening together in Ulster. To the men involved, their efforts had sprung from the highest of motives and most pragmatic considerations, even as they backfired spectacularly and murderously.[1]

“A Veritable Tornado”

The Newtowncunningham incident was to receive particular attention in the weeks ahead, being subjected to the worst possible interpretations from one side and counter-accusations by the other. What did seem clear, at least, was that a motorised convoy of pro-Treaty IRA men in three Crossley lorries had driven into Newtowncunningham village, Co. Donegal, to find the walls on either side of the street lined by their opposing counterparts in the anti-Treaty IRA.

Newtowncunningham today

For reasons that were to be hotly debated, this encounter erupted in a gunfight, in which the Pro-Treatyites received the worst of it. One of them was killed outright in the opening fusillade, with another six injured, three seriously. The convoy sped out of the village and took its casualties to a farmhouse. From there they were able to telephone for medical help from Derry.

The doctor who responded to the call arrived minutes before two of the wounded expired, leaving him to dress the wounds of the remaining three as best he could. The sixth casualty was unavailable for treatment, having been left behind in Newtowncunningham and, presumably, now a prisoner.

Pro-Treaty soldiers on a lorry

The engagement lasted no more than three minutes, yet had been savage in its intensity, with one survivor describing it as a “veritable tornado.” That it was an ambush, as initially reported, would be among the details disputed.

“Amongst the ambushers was identified the leader of the party who raided the Bank in Buncrana early in the day,” added the Derry Journal, the first hint at a connection between these seemingly disparate events.[2]


Michael Collins

The bitter irony was that it had been to stop such fratricidal conflict that the Anti-Treatyites had been there in the first place. In the spring of 1922, a series of meetings took place between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch, the generalissimos of the pro and anti-Treaty IRA wings respectively, with a number of their close aides attending.

A lot had changed and much remained the same. In the previous year, Ireland had been a country at war between the Irish Republican forces and the British military. Now, the only areas where Crown forces remained were Dublin – from where they were due to be transferred back to Britain – and the North-East corner of the island, long a flashpoint for trouble. The Truce of July 1921 allowed the rest of Ireland to at last breathe more easily but, in the Six Counties of Ulster, violence remained a fact of life:

While the memorable truce was generally honoured in the South of Ir[eland], it will be recalled that there was no attempt made to recognise a similar situation in the North, and more specifically in the present Six Counties, Eastern Donegal and other areas close to the present border.

The Crown Forces – Tans, Ulster Special Police, etc., whether they were supposed to honour their truce or not still backed up the loyal minority of present Ulster in directing their programme in Belfast and their general reign of terror in amongst the Nationalists elsewhere.

In the face of such provocation and desperate to do something:

The General Council of the IRA decided to recognise no truce situation in the North, and ideas were exchanged as to what remedy could be applied to meet the pressure on the Northern Nationalists.[3]

So wrote Seán Lehane years later, in March 1935, in his letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane had been among those chosen to be part of the said remedy: the agreement between Lynch and Collins to send assistance up to their beleaguered Northern compatriots in the form of men drawn from the anti-Treaty party.

Frank Aiken

A Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, Lehane was appointed the O/C of the new force. He would in turn report to Frank Aiken, the Armagh-based IRA leader, though in practice the Southerners would be acting on their own. Aiken had held himself aloof from the Treaty divisions, careful to maintain a guarded neutrality, and was thus an ideal compromise choice for Lynch and Collins.

Lehane’s instructions, as told to him by Lynch, were “to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].”[4]

Cross Purposes

That last part was a hint that the two IRA factions were not being entirely forthright with each other. The Pro-Treatyites, after all, were intending to only fight the British where they still were, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. In contrast, such a policy reversal would suit the Anti-Treatyites perfectly, breaking the peace as it would and putting an end to what they saw as an unacceptable compromise.

As Florence O’Donoghue, one of Lynch’s confidants (who may have attended the meetings with Collins), put it:

Liam [Lynch]’s view was that, apart from the Army’s plain duty to defend our people in the North, vigorous development of activity against the Crown forces there, if supported by pro-Treaty leaders and pro-Treaty Army element in the counties along the border, would be regarded by the British as a breach of the Treaty, and would create a situation in which a re-united Army would again confront the common enemy.[5]

Florence O’Donoghue

Which was the last thing Collins wanted. But O’Donoghue was a romantic at heart, and painted the secret pact between Lynch and Collins accordingly:

For both of them – and it was very evident there was in this project a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.[6]

Liam Lynch

Such regards did not cancel out the need for discretion. For his part, Collins would contribute weapons to the venture, donated by the Pro-Treatyites to the IRA units which fell under Lynch’s direct command, and then sent up North. The Anti-Treatyites would be recompensed with weapons that had been first given to the Pro-Treatyites by their new-found British partners, who were presumably unaware as to where their gifts were earmarked.

That way, any guns that came to Britain’s attention would not be traced back to Collins, still engaged as he was in negotiations with Westminster on the implementations of the Treaty. It was a skilful meld of subterfuge and politicking, but such secrecy also ensured that the right Irish hand remained unaware what the left was doing. In time, this would prove disastrous.[7]

Opening Acts

Still, things proceeded smoothly at first. One morning in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw a flotilla of small vans pass by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust from the roads. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now carried a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[8]

Even in the heart of the anti-Treaty command, the Four Courts in Dublin, this mystery was maintained. While performing clerical duties there as part of its garrison, Todd Andrews was puzzled at the exchange of lorries with the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. While Andrews was dimly aware that munitions were being passed between the two sides, he saw no paperwork, and heard nothing beyond gossip and conjecture, that could account for this unexpected glasnost.[9]

Four Courts, Dublin

For the opening moves, the leaders of the new venture met in McGarry’s Hotel, Letterkenny, having driven there the day before from Dublin. Present were Seán Lehane (Divisional O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Adjutant), Joe McGuirk (Quartermaster), Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), Denis Galvin (Support Officer) and two other men, Seán Fitzgerald and Mossy Donnegan.

Together, they formed the command echelon of the First Northern Division, with authority over the anti-Treaty IRA units in Derry, East Donegal, South Donegal and North-West Donegal. With everyone eager to start, it was agreed to seize two positions in Co. Donegal that would serve as launch-pads into the rest of Ulster, these being Raphoe town and Glenveagh Castle in the north-west county.[10]

Raphoe today

The former posed no difficulty. Two days later, on the 29th April 1922, the Irish Times reported how:

Unofficial [anti-Treaty] IRA forces who marched into Raphoe from the Letterkenny direction, yesterday commandeered the Masonic Hall, a solicitor’s office, and other buildings. They have fortified the buildings. The official [pro-Treaty] IRA occupy the barracks.[11]

Raphoe was now host to two different armies. Elsewhere in Ireland, such as Limerick, Athlone, Mullingar and Kilkenny, such arrangements had led to stand-offs, kidnappings and even deaths. In Raphoe, however, the two sides seemed to have co-existed amiably enough.

Moving In

Since the takeover of the Masonic Hall had been unopposed, there had been no need for violence or other unpleasantries. The IRA intruders also took over the neighbouring office of a local solicitor as he was the possessor of the keys to the hall.

Masonic Hall, Raphoe

“We were quite gentlemanly in our dealings with this solicitor,” recalled Michael O’Donoghue, a future GAA president and one of the ten-strong group who had entered Raphoe.

The solicitor in question handed over the keys with good grace, asking in return for some sort of written authorisation. These he duly received in the form of documents issued under the authority of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive in the Four Courts, and signed by Seán Lehane and Peadar O’Donnell as the Divisional O/C and Adjutant respectively.

The only other request from the solicitor was that he keep his silver antiques and other valuables that were in the two large glass cabinets in his bedroom (his office was adjoined to his private residence). When this was also accepted by the new occupants of the building, the solicitor duly locked the cabinets and presented the keys to O’Donoghue, complete with two copies of an inventory to be signed.

Thanks to this minimum of fuss, the new garrison was able to get to work in fortifying the Hall with sandbags before preparations could be made for the next stage in the operation. With Glenveagh Castle also taken, O’Donoghue set up his workshop there and began training select groups from each of the IRA brigade areas in his speciality of military engineering.

Glenveagh Castle

O’Donoghue drew up a plan for the making and assembling of mines, bombs and other explosives and left his assistant to oversee their manufacturing process, using whatever scraps of material at hand. Meanwhile, he accompanied Lehane in liaising between the various brigade areas and setting up Special Engineering Services there, no easy task considering that he was having to build from scratch.

Four brigades in Donegal and Derry were visited and reformed accordingly in the space of about ten days. The absence of bases remained a problem, with the Anti-Treatyites possessing only three barracks in its area. The rest of such buildings, now evacuated by British forces, were now in pro-Treaty IRA hands.[12]

Meeting the Opposition

The first of many problems was how the Anti-Treatyites, as in Raphoe, did not have area to themselves. Lehane and his officers may have called themselves the First Northern Division but there was already a unit with that name, whose members had decided that their place lay with the Treaty, and they far outnumbered their opposing counterparts in Donegal.

Pro-Treaty soldiers in uniform and on parade

According to Lehane, writing to the press on the 10th May, a week after the tragedies, he had attempted to contact the general of the pro-Treaty forces in order to minimise the risk of the two separate Divisions butting heads.

Unfortunately, Joe Sweeney was not nearly as accommodating, and a fortnight passed without an answer. In the meantime, the Anti-Treatyites were finding themselves under constant harassment, being often held up, searched, disarmed or even detained by Pro-Treatyites.

Pressed by his subordinates to do something, Lehane finally gained a meeting with Sweeney at the latter’s headquarters in Drumboe Castle. Daly was with Lehane, while Sweeney was accompanied by his adjutant, Tom Glennon from Belfast.

The ruin of Drumboe Castle today

“We met on friendly terms and discussed the whole position,” Lehane wrote:

I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.

Lehane asked Sweeney, if not assist, then at least not to hinder him in his work. Was it his intention otherwise for civil strife in Donegal? But the other man remained unmoved:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’

In the face of such a bald declaration, there was nothing else Lehane or Daly could say to make a difference, not even when Daly appealed to Sweeney on the basis of personal friendship. Their olive branch having withered, the two Anti-Treatyites withdrew from Drumboe Castle, and the situation between the two IRA factions remained frigid.[13]

Sweeney’s implacable attitude raises the question of how much he knew about the secret deal between Collins and Lynch. When interviewed years later, he described how:

Collins sent an emissary to say that he was sending arms to Donegal, and that they were to be handed over to certain persons – he didn’t tell me who they were – who would come with credentials to my headquarters.[14]

Cooperation with the Anti-Treatyites did not interest Sweeney in the slightest. When rifles arrived at Drumboe Castle in two lorries from Dublin, Sweeney was obliging enough to have their serial numbers chiselled off before smuggling some over to the IRA units in the Six Counties. He kept the rest, however, unwilling to risk them ending up in the hands of those his adjutant had proclaimed as their enemies.[15]

Idealised depiction of an Irish soldier in the pro-Treaty journal ‘An tÓglách’, June 1922

Secrets and Uncertainties

This would suggest that the full details of the joint-offensive deal were unknown to Sweeney. Alternatively, he may not have cared, thinking that whatever had been agreed to in distant Dublin was not relevant in Donegal. After all, for all of Lehane’s protestations of brotherhood, the Anti-Treatyites did not always conduct themselves as the model of civility.

Only a month ago, on the night of the 25th March, the pro-Treaty garrison in Newtowncunningham barracks had found themselves under attack when Anti-Treatyites arrived in a number of motorcars and, after taking up positions that overlooked the barracks, gave vent with rifles and revolvers.

As reported in the Derry Journal:

The affray, which was characterised with bloodshed, opened with a few intermittent rifle shots and developed into something in the nature of a pitched battle.

For three hours, the village inhabitants were kept awake and on tenterhooks by the crack of gunshots. When the assailants finally withdrew, having failed to take the barracks, they left behind dozens of spent cartridges.[16]

Even after the arrival of Lehane and his Munster auxiliaries, the behaviour of the Anti-Treatyites could be found wanting. When the Derry Journal and Derry Standard earned their ire, copies of those newspapers were seized by armed men from the train taking them to their retailers on the night of the 31st March, and burnt. When fresh copies were sent on a second train, this too was held up and the reprints destroyed.

One of the hijackers, noted by the Derry Journal, “spoke with a pronounced Southern accent.”

IRA members

Elsewhere, parties of Anti-Treatyites were reported to be holding up cars at gunpoint in West Donegal, and either forcing the motorists to drive them elsewhere or simply taking the cars for themselves. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sweeney would be reluctant to ally with such men, let alone permit them more weapons than they already had.[17]

Plan of Action

Squeezed between the more numerous Pro-Treatyites in Donegal and the well-equipped Crown forces stationed in the Six Counties, the Anti-Treatyites were in a precarious position. Throwing to the winds his initial plan for a gradual build-up, Lehane summoned another council of war in McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny. There, he drew up plans for an ambitious triple-pronged night attack.

Seán Lehane, Charlie Daly and Jack Fitzgerald (standing, left to right) pose for a group photograph with two others seated

Daly was to command a sixteen-strong force, consisting of ten Tyrone and six Kerry men, to assault Molenan House, Co. Derry, which was held by about twenty Crown policemen.

At the same time, Lehane was to take the lead with thirty others against a British camp at Burnfoot that lay about five miles from Derry City. As this base was strongly garrisoned with soldiers as well as police, complete with armoured cars and machine-guns, this looked to be a daunting mission, particularly since so few of the Donegal natives involved had seen any action before, but Lehane hoped that it would at least serve as a baptism of fire for them.

The third advance was to be a robbery on the Ulster Bank in Buncrana, a village in the north of Donegal. There, they seize all the banknotes that the five-man team could find.

At the appointed time, Lehane moved from Raphoe, where his column had assembled, riding northwards in a small fleet of stolen cars. The men carried rifles and hand grenades, with revolvers and automatics for the officers. Travelling slowly along byroads, the flotilla came across a large crowd, mostly of young men, who had gathered near a road junction, eight miles out of Raphoe.

IRA members

These were surrounded and searched for arms, something which they submitted to with apparent good humour. O’Donoghue felt ashamed all the same, the treatment he and his comrades were meting out reminding him too much of that by the Black and Tans he had fought against in Cork.[18]


When the column neared Burnfoot Railway Station, they left their vehicles to advance more quietly on foot. It was now midnight, the designated zero hour for the operation. After some last minute instructions from Lehane, the men went about their allocated tasks.

O’Donoghue’s was to cut the telegraph cables in the station to ensure that no calls for aid could be sent to the British garrison in Derry. This O’Donoghue did with the help of a Derryman called McCourt who acted as a guide for what was for the Corkman a foreign land.

He was about to find out just how foreign.

As the pair left the station, their mission a success, a cyclist suddenly emerged out of the night towards them. O’Donoghue called out to him to halt and, when the man continued to ride on, the Corkonian – not wanting to risk a shot lest it lose them the element of surprise – grabbed him as he tried to pass by and forced him to the ground. McCourt brandished a revolver in the stranger’s face, with a demand to know his religion.

O’Donoghue was shocked:

It was my first experience of sectarian animosity in Ulster and to see an armed I.R.A. man acting like a truculent and religious bigot angered me. I turned on McCourt: “None of that” I ordered, “I don’t care a rap what his religion is and I’ll ask the questions [emphasis his].”

The frightened man was led away to be detained in the large shed where the other civilians who the column had come across were being held. With the area as secure as it could be, the IRA men checked the time and saw that it was about 1 am.[19]

Moving in two files, towards the camp two miles away in the dark, the IRA men entered a boreen that ran parallel to the main Derry road.  When they found the way blocked by a waterlogged trench, the men crept carefully alongside the fences lining the boreen until they had bypassed the pool.

A boreen (country road) in Ireland

Nearing the Burnfoot camp, they froze when they saw lights flashing ahead of them in the distance. Some sort of message was being sent out, the men were sure, but none of them could tell what. Had they been discovered? Were the enemy alerted to their presence?

The column members pushed on regardless, being rewarded by the sight of a flickering red light that signified a fire. The British would surely not be so foolish as to leave such an obvious guide in the dark if they thought they were about to be under attack.

Emboldened, the IRA men continued along the boreen until they were overlooking the enemy camp, a hundred feet below and a hundred and fifty yards away. The column could not have asked for a better ambush site as its members carefully chose their places.[20]

The Battle at Burnfoot

The stillness of the night was shattered by a single shrill whistle-blast from Lehane, signalling the first volley from thirty or so rifles. Struggling to control his weapon’s recoil, O’Donoghue fired the full five bullets in the magazine before hurrying to reload.

IRA members with rifles

In response, Verey rockets were sent up from the camp, one after another, lighting up the hillside until O’Donoghue felt as if he was beneath the spotlights of a theatre stage. Then came the rattle of machine-guns, mounted in the British armoured cars, the memory of which would be seared into his memory:

The din was terrific. Bullets whizzed overhead and thudded into the fence at our rear; they tore strips and sent splinters flying from the fence behind which we kept hunched down. Sharp crackling explosions overhead and in front – the enemy was using explosive bullets.

Outmatched in equipment and, fearing the immediate arrival of Crown reinforcements from Derry, Lehane gave the order to pull back. O’Donoghue and three others formed a rearguard, during which he was infuriated to find that ammunition and even a still-loaded revolver had been left behind, oversights that the munitions-starved Anti-Treatyites could scarcely afford.

O’Donoghue grabbed what he could and, when he judged that enough time had passed for the others to withdraw, the four of them fired a final riposte before leaving in turn. The enemy fire, having abated, returned with a vengeance from machine-guns, forcing the rearguard to crawl on their bellies until they were out of danger.

In the dark, they almost collided with Lehane, their O/C having conscientiously lingered to ensure that his four subordinates had made good their own escape. The IRA men returned to Burnfoot by daybreak and fell in for inspection. Two of them had been wounded, albeit slightly, and five had gone missing, presumably after taking a wrong turn in the dark.

Still, as the rest of the men pulled back towards Newtowncunningham, exhausted though they were, they could not help feeling jubilant at their first completed mission.[21]

Rare ‘Papishes’

The column was aided by their enemies’ misconception that it had originated from Derry, where British soldiers and police spent the morning after stopping and searching pedestrians in a futile effort to identify the assailants. Other than a grazed hand, the occupants of Burnfoot Camp had avoided casualties.[22]

A British Army checkpoint in Ireland

When the IRA men reached Newtowncunningham in the early hour of 6 am, they took up billets in the village. Lehane, O’Donoghue and four others, all of them West Corkmen, selected a large mansion, half a mile away. Knocking on the door, they were admitted by the owner, who O’Donoghue remembered as being named ‘Black’.

As with the solicitor in Raphoe, the minimum of fuss was made. Despite his Orange-Loyalist outlook, Black played the role of gracious host as he invited his unexpected guests to a drink. Some awkward small talk was attempted, mostly about the political situation in Ulster, not that it was something any of the Corkonians could offer much about. It was something of a meeting of cultures, particularly for Black, who had never met Southern republicans before, and he was pleasantly surprised at their lack of interest in religious differences.

“To his mind, we were indeed rare ‘Papishes’,” remembered O’Donoghue.

As polite as everyone was, the IRA men were firm in their wants as they ordered no one to leave the house – a point they ensured by bolting and barring the exits – while taking the family bedrooms for their own. After a few hours of shut-eye, a messenger arrived at the door, breathlessly asking for Commandant Lehane.[23]

‘A New and Appalling Catastrophe’

Once allowed in, the newcomer told them that he was from the squad sent to Buncrana. While making their getaway from the Ulster Bank they had robbed, the IRA men had been fired upon by the pro-Treaty garrison in the village. Despite suffering a couple of wounds, the Anti-Treatyites had all escaped and were currently resting in Newtowncunningham with the rest.

For Lehane, O’Donghue and the others, there was little time to lose:

We hurriedly dressed and came down to a substantial breakfast, served by two daughters of the house with politeness and efficiency, but icily distant and formal in their manner.

Charlie Daly

After eating, the six Corkmen hurried to the village and mobilised the rest of the IRA there. A dejected Daly had also returned with his squad, having failed to take Molenon House. They had arrived to find the building locked and barricaded. After hammering on the door and shuttered windows had failed to gain entrance or even provoke the occupants – assuming there were any – into any sort of reaction, the IRA party reluctantly retired.

As Daly related this, O’Donoghue could not help but feel for his colleague:

It was an ignominious failure for Charlie to report and he felt it all the more keenly since we in Lehane’s party had fought an all-out battle.”[24]

Lehane and his officers next inspected the wounded pair from Buncrana. One had a minor leg wound, while the other, a Tipperary native called Doheny, had been shot through the lung. While a wan Doheny kept up a brave face, there was no mistaking his urgent need for medical attention. He was about to be driven to the nearby hospital but, before his comrades could do so, as O’Donoghue put it, “a new and appalling catastrophe occurred with the suddenness of a bolt from the blue.”[25]


An inquest was held the day after on the 5th May. As it took place in the pro-Treaty IRA base of Drumboe Castle, it is unsurprising that the findings would have a certain slant.

A still-intact Drumboe Castle

The first witness was Colonel-Commander Tom Glennon. He told how, upon receiving word of the fighting in Buncrana on the morning of the 4th, he set off with a party of fifty men in three Crossleys and five Fords. Glennon led from the front, seated next to the driver of the first Crossley. When entering Newtowncunningham, he told the court, a man ran out from behind a wall and shouted ‘halt’.

The word was barely out when rifle rife was heard coming from both sides of the road. Deciding that to resist was suicidal, exposed as they were and outnumbered – he believed he was facing between 100 and 150 assailants – Glennon told the driver to speed on as far he could.

IRA members lining up to shoot

“You did not anticipate an attack?” asked the coroner, James Boyle.

Glennon: No; if I had, they would not have got us as easily as they did.

Boyle: You were not going to attack any person in Newtowncunningham?

Glennon: No, we were not.

Boyle: Was there anything said besides the word ‘halt’ before fire was opened on you?

Glennon: No, the shout ‘halt’ and the first volley of shots came at the same time.

Boyle: Have you heard that a man named Lehane was in charge of the attacking party?

Glennon: Yes, I heard that.

Boyle: Is he from County Donegal?

Glennon: No, he is from County Cork.

Glennon added that his men had had their rifles at straight, as opposed to at the ready which was what they would have done had they been expecting anything. In contrast, Glennon said he had seen, after driving out of Newtowncunningham, several enemy scouts positioned nearby. He concluded from this that the attack had been carefully planned.

Colourised photograph of pro-Treaty soldiers

Boyle: Is it possible that they knew you were going through to Buncrana?

Glennon: It is possible.

A member of the jury, Mr Shesgreen, was next to question the witness, asking if he knew the time of the incident. Glennon replied that it had been 6 pm.

Shesgreen: That is two hours after the truce was declared. Do you know whether the attackers got through notice from the headquarters in the Four Courts about the truce?

Glennon: I could not say. Official information did not reach Drumboe until after we left.

In a tragic postscript, an armistice between the two IRA factions had been signed that morning in Dublin between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch. It had come too late to make a difference in Newtowncunningham, however.

The three dead men – all Donegal natives – were identified as Corporal Joseph McGinley, Daniel McGill and Edward Gallagher. McGinley had had two wounds, one in his upper thigh, fracturing the bone, and the other low in the abdomen. McGill had been hit in the back and near the kidneys, while Gallagher had received two bullets to the groin.[26]

An Alternative Point of View

The pro-Treaty line was that Newtowncunningham had been a premeditated ambush, their soldiers driving obliviously into a death-trap without so much as a warning. Lehane replied to these accusations in a letter to the press on the 10th May:

With reference to the recent tragic incident…I wish to state the published accounts of the facts connected therewith misrepresents the actual circumstances of the occurrences.

By noon on the 4th May, Lehane had received word that his men in Buncrana had been “fired on without warning by a party of pro-Treaty forces, who were concealed in houses.”[27]

On this point, Lehane had a legitimate complaint as the Anti-Treatyites had been leaving the Ulster Bank in Buncrana at the time. Of course, as they had just held up the staff and robbed the bank of £8000, it was perhaps still not something that cast them in the best of lights.

Bearing the brunt of the fighting were the civilians who found themselves caught up in the crossfire. Five were wounded, some seriously. Among the victims were a father and daughter, said to be hit by the same bullet that ripped the hand of John Kavanagh before striking Mary Ellen Kavanagh (19). Peter McGowan (56) was injured in both legs, while Patrick Maguire received a flesh wound near his eye.

Of the combatants, John Doherty (24) of the Pro-Treatyites was shot in the elbow. Among the raiders, two were initially reported to have been slain, but that was erroneous. The pair were instead wounded, one thought to be seriously, though they were able to drive away with the rest of their party.

The most tragic of all was 9-year old Essie Fletcher. She was brought to Derry Infirmary with a gunshot wound in her abdomen. Surgery was quickly performed but to no avail and she died later that day.[28]

Lehane’s Version

While unaware of the full extent of the mayhem in Buncrana, Lehane knew that he had to do something. Relations with the other side had never been cordial in Donegal but now they had taken a decidedly violent turn. After consulting his officers, they agreed to move to Buncrana. He did not add in his letter to the press what he had hoped to achieve there – returning to the scene of a battle seems odd when his intentions were supposedly peaceful.

IRA members

In any case, it was 6 pm by the time Lehane had mobilised his men and they were about to board their cars when a growing rumble warned of the arrival of another force. Mindful that these could be British soldiers or Crown policemen on the warpath from Burnfoot, Lehane “with a view to protecting my men…gave the order to take cover behind a broken-down fence, which was the only place available at the moment.”

Only he and Daly remained out in the open. They walked down the road to ascertain who was coming. Seeing that they were fellow IRA men, albeit of a pro-Treaty persuasion, Lehane and Daly called on them to halt.

Instead of doing so a shot was fired from the third lorry, the bullet passing over my head and smashing the fanlight of the door of a house near by, in which our wounded comrade, who had been brought from Buncrana, was then lying.

That was all the spark that was needed:

There was an immediate outbreak of fire from both forces, the pro-Treaty forces using Thompson guns as their lorries dashed though the streets. My men were ordered out on the street, as their positions were being enfiladed by fire from the lorries.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Treatyites were coming under attack from another direction. The men in the five Ford cars making up the tail of the convoy, which the Anti-Treatyites had been previously unaware, had dismounted to take shelter in a field, from where they could contribute to the shooting. Taking cover as well, the Anti-Treatyites fired back and managed to outflank the other side, forcing them back.

Lehane stressed the essentially defensive nature of his side: “On several occasions parties of them were at our mercy, but we fired only with the intention of dislodging them.”

Pro-Treaty soldiers

Two Pro-Treatyites were taken prisoner after falling out of their Crossleys. One had been slightly hurt by the impact but otherwise they were unharmed. In addition to the POWs, the Anti-Treatyites took possession of two rifles, a revolver, six rifle grenades and some ammunition, as well as the Ford cars the Pro-Treatyites had abandoned in their flight.

After being brought to Raphoe, the captives told of how they had been ordered to leave their lorries and fight in the event of an attack. Lehane stressed how these two had been well-treated, the injured man tended to by a doctor, after which they were allowed to go free the next morning.

As for the truce that had come just before and too late, Lehane could plead a good excuse for not knowing of it:

Owing to our being on active service I did not get that wire until the following day, and only learned of the truce on the arrival of the Dublin papers on the morning of the 5th.

While expressing his regrets and that of his staff, and their sympathies for the families of the deceased, Lehane declared his conscience clean: “The actions and honesty of purpose of my officers and men will bear the fullest investigation.”

As for relations between the two sundered IRA wings, Lehane bore no grudges: “I am willing now as heretofore to secure an honourable understanding.”[29]

Final Rebuttals

Joseph Sweeney

Such a hope seemed very distant. Sweeney wrote in turn to the press, complaining at Lehane’s attempt “to make it appear that an unprovoked attack was made by our men on an inoffensive party,” as he witheringly put it.

The first shot could not have come from the third Crossley as Lehane claimed, countered Sweeney, because that vehicle had not yet appeared from around the bend before the shooting began. The fact that the Pro-Treatyites were chatting and singing while on board, Sweeney wrote, alone testified to their complete surprise.

As for the claim from the other side that they had been unsure as to who had been driving towards them:

There are people who overheard conversations of the [anti-Treaty] men in Newtowncunningham prior to the ambush prepared to state that the ambush was prepared with the full knowledge as to who were to be attacked.

As if that was not evidence enough, he continued, an Anti-Treatyite had said to one of Sweeney’s men that not only had the ambush been planned, but not enough casualties had been inflicted in his opinion.

He conceded that the prior attempt at peace talks at Drumboe Castle, as described by Lehane, had occurred. But Sweeney was adamant that:

It should be understood that as an officer responsible to GHQ of the Army of the Elected Government of the people, it did not lie within my power to arrange “a basis of unity and co-operation” with a man who absolutely repudiated the Army, GHQ, and the people’s Government.

Sweeney’s closure to his letter was both an echo and a rebuttal of Lehane’s own: “An honourable understanding may be had by the recognition of constituted authority.”[30]

‘The Attitude of Hate and Bias’

Years later, O’Donoghue would be brooding on the injustice he believed had been inflicted on him and his own. To him, that there had been a truce was particularly damning to the Pro-Treatyites who had “set out the morning after the truce to round up the IRA. The Free State officers…knew of the truce, the IRA officers did not [emphasis his].”

The underlining showed how strongly O’Donoghue felt on the matter. That the verdict from the coroner’s inquest was one of “wilful murder” was another grievance of his: “This shows the attitude of hate and bias fostered at the time by the Press in general against the Irish Republican Army.”

Anti-Treaty poster, depicting Michael Collins in league with Britain and Ulster Unionists in suppressing republicanism. Ironically, Collins had been behind a joint IRA venture in the North

Regardless of the whys and whats, Lehane, O’Donoghue and a few other officers took advantage of the armistice to return to Dublin, albeit briefly – there was still work to be done in the North, after all. Lehane reported to Liam Lynch in the Four Courts on the progress made so far, while O’Donoghue was impatient to add the necessary equipment to his bomb-making workshop. The bloodshed in Newtowncunningham and Buncrana notwithstanding, they and the rest of their colleagues fully intended to continue their mission.[31]

Towards the end of the month, on the 27th May, the eighth victim of the Buncrana shootout, 19-year-old Mary Ellen Kavangh died in the Derry Infirmary. She had been shot in the upper part of her back, with the bullet lodging in her left lung. Death was ruled to be due to haemorrhage. That made her the second fatality at Buncrana, after 9-year old Essie Fletcher, and the fifth one on that unhappy day.[32]

See also:

A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

Bloodshed in Mullingar: Civil War Begins in Co. Westmeath, April 1922


[1] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4

[4] Ibid, pp. 204-5

[5] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 250

[6] Ibid, p. 251

[7] O’Malley, p. 205

[8] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9

[9] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 238-9

[10] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 46

[11] Irish Times, 29/04/1922

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741), Part II, pp. 46-9

[13] Derry Journal, 12/05/1922

[14] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 275

[15] Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Gennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 151

[16] Derry Journal, 27/03/1922

[17] Ibid, 03/04/1922

[18] O’Donoghue, pp. 49-52

[19] Ibid, pp. 52-3

[20] Ibid, pp. 53-4

[21] Ibid, pp. 54-6

[22] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[23] O’Donoghue, p. 7

[24] Ibid, pp. 56-7

[25] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[26] Derry Journal, 08/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[28] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[29] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[30] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[31] O’Donoghue, pp. 61-4, 66

[32] Derry Journal, 29/05/1922



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

Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

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

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


Derry Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statement

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741