‘Malicious and Wanton’
The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.
“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.
“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”
Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:
Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.
You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.
By Order of the Army Executive.
With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.
As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.
But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:
Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.
Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.
“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”
Allegiances Remade and Broken
Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.
“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”
The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.
“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:
That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.
Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.
Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.
This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”
A Trial of Strength
Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:
How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.
As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.
Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:
In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.
Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”
The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”
Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”
The Power of the Sledge
Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.
The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.
Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.
The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.
“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”
The Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:
The sledge is not all-powerful.
On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.
Today we offer our readers seven.
The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.
Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.
The country has taken the measure of the sledges.
Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.
But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?
Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?
What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?
A Tremendous Responsibility
To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:
…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.
The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.
Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.
O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.
Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”
It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.
The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.
The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.
In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:
- The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
- A general election with an aim towards:
- A government with the confidence of the whole country.
In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.
Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:
…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.
As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:
…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.
Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:
…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.
But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.
From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”
Who’s in Charge?
O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.
As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.
When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.
This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:
It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.
Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.
On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.
Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.
Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.
Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.
“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.
It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.
Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.
Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.
“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.
Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.
“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.
The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.
“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”
Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.
“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.
Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:
The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.
In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.
By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.
A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.
Tweaking the Lion’s Tail
Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.
As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.
While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.
To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.
Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:
Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.
It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.
An Irish Comic Opera
Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:
It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.
O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.
Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:
Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.
O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.
Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.
“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”
To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”
A Fanatic’s Spirituality
O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.
O’Connor was a busy man and so could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.
In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:
Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.
Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.
As for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.
In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.
“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”
“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.
Within forty-eight hours, it was over.
A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:
Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.
Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:
The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.
O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.
However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:
The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.
If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.
“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”
Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.
“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.
For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”
Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.
For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.
If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”
O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.
“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.
The Men Behind the Walls
O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.
“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.
That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.
“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”
It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.
O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:
…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.
This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”
The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.
Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.
‘The Quicklime on their Boots’
O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.
Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.
MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.
O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.
“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.
As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.
No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.
“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”
MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”
“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”
Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.
O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.
That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.
No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:
The wardens strutted up and down,
And watched their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spic and span,
And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at,
By the quicklime on their boots.
A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:
…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”
No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.
 Irish Times, 19/07/1922
 Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 240
 O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1954), p. 219
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 233
 Irish Times, 24/03/1922
 Freeman’s Journal, 24/03/1922
 Ibid, 29/03/1922
 Irish Times, 05/04/1922
 Freeman’s Journal, 01/05/1922
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 252
 Irish Times, 15/04/1922
 O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 86-7 ; O’Donoghue, p. 244
 Cork Examiner, 02/05/1922
 Ibid, 03/05/1922
 Ibid, 04/05/1922
 Ibid, 29/05/1922
 Ibid, 30/05/1922
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame, pp. 100-1
 Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40
 O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 4, 10
 MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 25
 O’Donoghue, pp. 243-4
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 24
 O’Donoghue, p. 244
 O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 26-7
 Irish Times, 13/09/1922
 Deasy, p. 42
 Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. ), pp. 632-3, 651-5
 Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), p. 55
 Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018), pp. 107-9
 Irish Times, 01/07/1922
 O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 162
 Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012), p. 88
 Irish Times, 01/07/1922
 O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 175
 Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 106-7
 O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 19, 23, 27-9, 59, 64
 MacEoin, pp. 118-9
 Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 23/01/2020)
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume II (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)
Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)
Fallon, Las. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (Dublin: South Dublin Libraries, 2012)
Fewer, Michael. The Battle of the Four Courts: The First Three Days of the Irish Civil War (London: Mouth of Zeus, 2018)
MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)
Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. )
O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1954)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Bureau of Military History Statements
Little, Patrick, WS 1769
O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544
Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624
Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)