A Choice of Green: The South Longford By-Election, May 1917

Vote for McGuinness who is a true Irishman,

Because he loved Eireann and fought in her cause,

And prove to the Party and prove to the world,

That Ireland is sick of her English-made laws.[1]

(Sinn Féin election song)

The Changing of the Guard

It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.

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Longford Leader, 7th April 1917

“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.

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Charles Parnell

During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:

At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.

The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.

And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”

This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:

Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.[2]

Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.

“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.[3]

‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’

None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.

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John Redmond

“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.[4]

And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.

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Anti-IPP cartoon, in the wake of its Roscommon defeat, from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.[5]

Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.

“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”

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Anti-IPP cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

On the Defence

What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:

It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.

True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”

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Anti-Home Rule postcard

What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:

Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.

Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”

If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”[6]

It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.[7]

Teething Troubles

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Arthur Griffith

Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”

Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:

Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.

Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”

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Arthur Griffith’s treatise for Irish indepedence

Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:

…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.

Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.[8]

The Plunkett Convention

Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”[9]

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The Mansion House, Dublin

They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.

“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:

In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.[10]

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Count Plunkett

Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.

On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.[11] 

“Callous and Disdainful”

Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:

There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.[12]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.

With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.

Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”

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Sir Francis Vane

Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”[13]

The Most Important Thing

Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.

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The Sinn Féin offices at 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”

Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:

This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”

Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:

He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.

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Michael Collins

With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.

“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.[14]

Choosing

Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.

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William O’Brien

At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.[15]

The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:

At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.[16]

However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.

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Joe McGuinness

Objections

As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:

Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.[17]

Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.

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The Longford Arms Hotel today

In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.

Secrets Kept

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Dan MacCarthy

At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.

He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:

Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.

Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.

Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.

MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:

The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.

As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.[18]

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Sinn Féin election poster, showing Joe McGuinness

‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’

The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”

And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”

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Joseph Mary Flood (in the robes of a barrister)

Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.

Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”[19]

Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:

…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.

If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:

It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.[20]

Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”

Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.

A Decision Made

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Patrick McKenna

It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.[21]

Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely

I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.

The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”

Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”[22]

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Dr Joseph Hoare, Bishop of Ardagh

The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.

Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.[23]

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Sinn Féin postcard

Escalation

Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.

This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.

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Men of the Royal Irish Constabulary

By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:

Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.

The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.

A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.

Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.[24]

Choices

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Kevin O’Shiel

“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”[25]

At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.

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John Dillon

But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.

The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:

If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.

Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:

The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.

Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.[26]

Joe Devlin

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Joe Devlin

At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”

The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:

Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.

As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:

Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland![27]

Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:

Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.

Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.[28]

Fighting Flags

Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”

Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”[29]

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J.P. Farell, MP

Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.

“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.[30]

The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.

To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.

“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”

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Sinn Féin postcard

It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.

When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.[31]

‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’

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Laurence Ginnell

The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.

While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”

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Countess Plunkett

Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.

Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.[32]

“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”

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Sinn Féin election poster, depicting McKenna’s ‘separation women’ supporters as drunken and deranged

Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”[33]

Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:

Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.

Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”[34]

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Patrick McCartan

‘A Powerful Hold’

Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.

At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”[35]

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Children with both tricolours and a Union Jack during the Longford election

On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:

The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.

If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.

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Sinn Féin postcard

In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”

Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”

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Sinn Féin activists during the Longford election

Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.[36]

South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.

Episcopal Intervention

The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.

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Cardinal Michael Logue (standing) with other Catholic clergy

“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:

As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.

The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:

Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. [37]

No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:

Dear Sir,

The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?

Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.

As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:

I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.[38]

Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.

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Dr William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin

Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”[39]

‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’

While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.

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T.P. O’Connor

The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”[40]

He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:

Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.[41]

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David Llyod George

But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”[42]

And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.[43]

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Electoral pamphlet with Archbishop Walsh’s letter, issued by Sinn Féin

Final Judgement

The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.

As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.[44]

In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.[45]

35265481_1292738137523017_4673116579179790336_nOn the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.

The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.

The paper read: McKenna has won.[46]

Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:

We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.

O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.[47]

Lost and Found

Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.[48]

Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.[49]

Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:

A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.[50]

As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:

The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.[51]

Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.[52]

MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.[53]

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Sinn Féin poster on a carriage, 1918

On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:

The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.

It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:

For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.[54]

But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”[55]

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Joe McGrath (far left), seated next to Michael Collins

‘A Confusion of Factions’

Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,

Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.

Their blood runs red in your Irish veins,

You are the sons of Granuaile.

So show your pride in the men who died,

And vote for the man in gaol.[56]

(Sinn Féin election song, South Longford, 1917)

Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 12th May 1917

The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.

For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.

Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 21st May 1917

Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.

Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 28th May 1917

“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.[57]

In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.[58]

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 5th June 1917

More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.

Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.[59]

See also: An Idolatry of Candidates: Count Plunkett and the North Roscommon By-Election of 1917

References

[1] Doherty, Bryan (BMH / WS 1292), p. 5

[2] Longford Leader, 07/04/1917

[3] Irish Times, 04/04/1917

[4] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 274

[5] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1017

[6] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[7] Ibid, p. 274

[8] Lennon, Michael, ‘Looking Backward. Glimpses into Later History’, J.J. O’Connell Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI) MS 22,117(1)

[9] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[10] Lennon

[11] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[12] Lennon

[13] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[14] Lennon

[15] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), pp. 105-6

[16] Irish Times, 10/04/1917

[17] O’Brien, pp. 106-7

[18] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), pp. 12-4

[19] Meleady, p. 277

[20] Longford Leader, 14/04/1917

[21] Meleady, p. 277

[22] Ibid, p. 278

[23] Irish Times, 05/05/1917

[24] Ibid, 07/05/1917

[25] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 5), pp. 40-1

[26] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[27] O’Shiel, p. 41

[28] Meleady, p. 278

[29] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[30] O’Shiel, pp. 41-2

[31] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 98-9

[32] Irish Independent, 07/05/1917

[33] Ginnell, Alice (BMH / WS 982), p. 17

[34] McCartan, Patrick (BMH / WS 766), pp. 63-4

[35] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[36] Ibid, 08/05/1917

[37] Irish Independent, 08/05/1917

[38] Ibid, 09/05/1917

[39] Ibid, 10/05/1917

[40] Meleady, p. 267

[41] Ibid, p. 271

[42] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[43] McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 9 ; Nugent, p. 100

[44] Irish Times, 09/05/1917

[45] MacCarthy, p. 14

[46] Ibid, p. 15

[47] O’Shiel, pp. 42-3

[48] MacCarthy, p. 15

[49] Wyse-Power, Charles (BMH / WS 420), p. 14

[50] O’Shiel, p. 43

[51] MacCarthy, p. 15

[52] Irish Times, 11/10/1917 ‘ O’Shiel, p. 44

[53] MacCarthy, pp. 13-4

[54] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[55] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), p. 31

[56] Doherty, p. 5

[57] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

[58] Shouldice, John (BMH / WS 679), p. 13

[59] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Roscommon Herald

Book

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doherty, Bryan, WS 1292

Ginnell, Alice, WS 982

Good, Joseph, WS 388

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

McCartan, Patrick, WS 766

McCormack, Michal, WS 1503

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Shouldice, John, WS 679

Wyse-Power, Charles, WS 420

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

 

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Shadows and Substance: Seán Mac Eoin and the Slide into Civil War, 1922

In the Interests of the Country

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Seán Mac Eoin

Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.

As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:

I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.[1]

As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:

Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.

For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.[2]

This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).

An Extremist Speaks

Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:

Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.[3]

Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.[4]

Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.[5]

Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.[6]

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National Concert Hall, site of the former National University where the Treaty debates took place

‘Red with Anger’

For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.

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Seán T. O’Kelly

When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”

“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.[7]

Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.

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Kathleen O’Callaghan

Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.[8]

Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.[9]

That Gang of Mine

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Dan Breen

Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”

The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?[10]

Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.[11]

Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.

He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”

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Men of an IRA Flying Column

Only One Army

When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.

Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.

Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.[12]

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Pro-Treaty poster

By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.

As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”[13]

Machinations

He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.

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Éamon de Valera

On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”[14]

The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).[15]

As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.

Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.[16] 

The Army of the Republic

Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:

At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.[17]

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Michael Collins

The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.

Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.

“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.

“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.

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Richard Mulcahy

As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”[18]

This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”[19]

For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.

Securing Athlone

Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.

Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.

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Athlone Bridge over the Shannon River

Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.

The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.

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British soldiers leaving Ireland, 1922

The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.

After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.

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British soldiers lowering the Union Jack in Dublin Castle, 1922

The First Glorious Day

Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.

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Interior of Athlone Castle

“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”

Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!

This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.

“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.

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Illustration of the siege of Athlone, 1691, by artist William Barnes Wollen

Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”

After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.

Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.

As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.

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Athlone Castle

To Fight or Not to Fight

Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.

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Seán Mac Eoin, surrounded by his officers, raising the tricolour after Athlone Barracks

After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”

When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”

In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:

On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.

No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.

And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.[20]

Maintaining Athlone

The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.

He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”

Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.

Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:

Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.

Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.

I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.

The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.

Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”

That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.

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Free State soldiers on parade

He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:

The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.

The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.

This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.[21]

As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.

In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.

The West Awakens

The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:

As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.

That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.[22]

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Arthur Griffith

A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.

“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.

The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.

Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:

Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.

Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:

As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.

And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.[23]

The Sligo Situation

The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.

Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.

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Anti-Treaty men leaning out of a window in Sligo, 1922 (full video on YouTube)

Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.

Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.

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IRA men, standing to attention outside a hotel entrance

It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.

Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.

Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.

Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.

There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sligo

Success in Sligo

This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers onboard an armoured car with a machine-gun

As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?

After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.

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Seán Mac Eoin addressing the crowd in Sligo from a window (note the pistol in hand)

He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.

As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.

Arthur Griffith addresses an election meeting in Sligo Town, 1922
Arthur Griffith addresses the crowd in Sligo town square, April 1922

The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.[24]

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Footage of Seán Mac Eoin helping to clear the road (full clip on YouTube)

A Death in Athlone

The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.

“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.

“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.

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George Adamson

Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.

Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[25]

Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[26]

Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.[27]

This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.

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George Adamson’s funeral passing through Athlone

Securing the Midlands

Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.

While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.

When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.

At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.

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IRA fighters, all in civilian dress

Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.[28]

Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.[29]

Squabbles in the Dáil

Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.

fighting-kilkenny-castle
Free State soldiers outside Kilkenny Castle, where the Anti-Treatyites had held out in a last stand before surrendering, May 1922

The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.

But not all agreed on the solution.

Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:

At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.

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Éamon de Valera

Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:

De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.

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Seán Mac Eoin

Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.

De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.

As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”[30]

An Impossible Situation

Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”[31]

Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.

All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.

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Harry Boland

At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.

It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.

Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.

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Kathleen Clarke

Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”[32]

At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.

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The military leaders meet at the Mansion House, May 1922. From left to right: Seán Mac Eoin (in uniform), Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows (video on YouTube)

Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.

She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.[33]

In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”

The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.[34]

Pointing Fingers

The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.

In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:

They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.[35]

rory-oconnor-rumpled
Rory O’Connor

At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.

As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:

I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.[36]

Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.

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Free State poster, denigrating the Anti-Treatyites as latecomers in the previous war against Britain

A Longford Wedding

Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.

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St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford

Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.

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The newly-weds (video on YouTube)

Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.

But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.[37]

Or perhaps not.

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Seán Mac Eoin on his wedding day with Alice Cooney

A Return to Sligo

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Joseph Sweeney

Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.

Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.[38]

Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.

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Front page of anti-Treaty newspaper

Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.

It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.[39]

Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11

[3] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 23-4

[4] Seán Mac Eoin Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P151/80

[5] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?, p. 11

[6] Irish Times, 20/12/1921

[7] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 134

[8] Ibid, p. 314

[9] Irish Times, 09/01/1922

[10] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/79

[11] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 168

[12] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/124

[13] Ibid, P151/162

[14] Irish Times, 27/08/1921

[15] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1786

[16] Ibid, P151/1835

[17] Ibid, P151/1837

[18] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 424-5

[19] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), p. 235

[20] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/131

[21] Ibid, P151/1809

[22] Ibid, P151/1812

[23] Sligo Independent, 15/04/1922

[24] Ibid, 22/04/1922

[25] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[26] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[27] Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[28] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922, 05/05/1922 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 375

[29] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[30] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), p. 368

[31] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[32] Ibid, P151/1813 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[33] McDonnell, Vera (BMH / WS 1050), pp. 9-10

[34] Irish Times, 10/05/1922

[35] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1804

[36] Ibid

[37] Longford Leader, 24/06/1922

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

[39] Sligo Independent, 08/07/1922

Bibliography

Books

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

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

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

University College Dublin Archives

Seán Mac Eoin Papers

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Sligo Independent

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

Bureau of Military History Statement

McDonnell, Vera, WS 1050

The Limits of Might: Liam Lynch and the End/Start of Conflict, 1921-2 (Part I)

A Pause in the War

Deasy
Liam Deasy

When peace came to Ireland on the 11th July 1921, it was sudden, unexpected and, for some in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), not entirely welcome.

Two days earlier, Liam Deasy, the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, had been in Togher, a parish south of Cork City, overseeing a staff meeting of the Dunmanway Battalion, one of the six that made up that IRA Brigade. Deasy was in the process of drawing up plans with the Dunmanway men when the schoolteacher, whose house they were using, rushed in with a copy of that morning’s edition of the Cork Examiner.

A Truce between the IRA and the Crown forces was announced, due to come into effect in a couple of days’ time. The news was received in stunned silence, each man struggling to take in the enormity of what he had heard. “No trace of emotion, not the slightest sign of enthusiasm, betrayed themselves in the reaction of my colleagues,” was how Deasy remembered the scene.

Attempting to sort out his feelings, Deasy believed he would have opposed such a détente – had it been up to him – unless a satisfactory outcome was guaranteed. Since he was under no illusion as to how much the British Government would be prepared to concede, the ceasefire could be no more than temporary, useful only as breathing space before the next step on the journey towards complete independence and the Irish Republic.

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British soldiers in Dublin during the War of Independence

Still, Deasy was human enough to feel relief at the break in almost two years of life ‘on the run’ and the chance to move around freely without fear of arrest or death. But he was also concerned that such respite might prove problematic in terms of discipline. The same men who had stoically endured hardship and danger might not be so eager for more once the Truce ended and the war resumed.

Such were the thoughts and concerns swirling around Deasy’s head as he left Togher and travelled in a pony and trap towards Ballylickey, where he had made his latest Brigade headquarters. Accompanying him was Tom Barry, the famed flying column commander. When the two men reached Ballylickey, they found a dispatch waiting for them.

It was from Liam Lynch, the O/C of the First Southern Division and their superior officer. Both men were ordered to proceed to the Division Headquarters at the village of Glantane, to begin their new assignments, with Barry as the liaison officer with the British Army and Deasy to assist Lynch on the newly expanded Division staff. These instructions snapped the pair out of the fog of surprise, reminding them that their duty had not yet come to an end.[1]

Preparing for the Next Round

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Lynch often had this effect on people. “I was very impressed with Lynch,” recalled one contemporary. “He was always so meticulous about his appearance and dress… At the same time, he was a strong disciplinarian.”[2]

Nothing exemplified this exacting attitude better than the days immediately following the Truce. Lynch allowed himself or his men no relaxation, estimating that he had at best three or four weeks, possibly six, within which to do six months’ worth of work.

When a house in Glantane became vacant, the First Southern Division HQ quickly moved in. Besides mealtimes, the only pauses in the workload came on Sunday evenings when Lynch would suggest a walk in the countryside. Anything more was out of the question. It would amount, as he wrote to his brother Tom, to a “National sin when there is work to be done” – and there was much to do.[3]

A rare break, however unwillingly, came when he was arrested by a British patrol on the 18th August. A quick call to Dublin Castle was enough to secure his release and the continuation of the Truce. In the meantime, he had enjoyed chatting with the Black-and-Tans, jovially discussing with his captors the possibility of reacquainting with them on the battlefield.[4]

Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.

General Direction

As for the talks between President Éamon de Valera and the British Prime Minister, and the subsequent negotiations in London by the Irish Plenipotentiaries, Lynch and his staff had nothing more than a passing interest.

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Cathal Brugha

Even the offer of a promotion from Dublin only served to irritate Lynch. On the 6th December, Lynch wrote to Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defence, to turn down the offer of commander-in-chief. The reason given – “after serious consideration,” Lynch stressed – was such an elevation would put him too much under the thumb of the Cabinet, to the detriment, Lynch feared, of effective military work: “I feel that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff cannot do their duty when they are not placed in a position to do so.”

The current frustration was a case in point. “At the present moment when war may be resumed at short notice I have got no general direction,” Lynch complained to Brugha. Lynch was not to be led astray from his priorities.[5]

That same day, Lynch was to receive news of another unwelcome distraction from the war with Britain: the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Plenipotentiaries. It did not take long for the First Southern Division to decide about it. At a meeting in Cork on the 10th December, four days after the signing, the Division staff unanimously adopted a resolution:

The Treaty as it is drafted is not acceptable to us as representing the Army in the 1st Divisional Area, and we urge its rejection by the Government.[6]

The resolution was sent to Richard Mulcahy as the IRA Chief of Staff, with instructions for it to be forwarded to the Cabinet. Lynch signed it as ‘Liam Ó Loingisg’, along with the members of his staff (including Deasy) and, in an impressive display of solidarity, all the Officers Commanding (O/Cs) of the Division brigades – the five from Cork, the three from Kerry and the sole ones from West Limerick and Waterford.

According to Deasy, this resolution was a step not taken lightly, given the implied criticism of Michael Collins – one of the signatories of the Treaty – who Lynch and his Divisional colleagues otherwise held in high regard.[7]

The Brotherhood

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Michael Collins

Nonetheless, Lynch could not have been completely surprised. Collins had warned him to that effect a month earlier in November 1921. In a session of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Parnell Place, Cork, Collins had taken Lynch and his closest aides, Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, aside for a private chat.

Given the impossibility for either military or diplomatic actions to achieve complete independence for Ireland, Collins told them, compromises would inevitably have to be made. Perturbed, Lynch asked Collins not to repeat such a thing in front of the others, lest things ‘blow up’ there.[8]

In Dublin, a month later, on the 10th December, Lynch attended a conclave of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s ruling body. Two days afterwards, the Council issued a note to its adherents. For such a momentous decision, the instructions were surprisingly terse, saying only that the Supreme Council had decided that the Treaty should be ratified. However, those of the IRB who were also public representatives could act as they saw fit. That was all, for now.[9]

For Lynch, this decision was a profoundly disappointing one. It had also alienated him from the rest of the Supreme Council. As he recounted in a letter to O’Donoghue on the 11th December: “The situation is I stood alone at the meeting I attended.”

As far as Lynch knew, the First Southern Division might also standing apart from the rest of the IRA. Nonetheless, the “position I have taken up I mean to stand by.”

“Too Much Gas”

Florence
Florence O’Donoghue

Despite his bullish words, Lynch attempted to strike a pensive chord to O’Donoghue: “I do not recommend immediate war as our front is broken.”

Lynch suspected that the Treaty would be carried by a majority in the Dáil, in which case the minority would fall in line, a principle that must also apply within the Army “or we are lost.” For all his determination on behalf of the Irish Republic, it was the IRA and the threat to its cherished unity that was his immediate concern.

In regards to Collins: “I admire Mick as a soldier and a man. Thank God all parties can agree to differ.”[10]

Lynch repeated his conciliatory tone towards Collins in a letter to his brother Tom, written on the 12th: “Sorry I must agree to differ with Collins, that does not make us worse friends.” Should the war with Britain be resumed, Lynch had no doubt that Collins would continue to do his part for Irish freedom.

Not that friendship lessened Lynch’s convictions one bit: “First of all I must assure you that my attitude is now as always, to fight on for the recognition of the Republic,” even if that meant fighting on by himself. Should the Government accept the Treaty, as it seemed likely, then he would bide his time until they could “strike for final victory at most favourable opportunity.”

Lynch was looking forward to the time when ‘war-war’ could take over from ‘jaw-jaw’: “Speeches and fine talk do not go far these days,” he grumbled. “We have already too much gas.”[11]

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Anti-Treaty cartoon, depicting Michael Collins

“My God, It’s Terrible”

The Dáil debates over the Treaty began in Dublin on the 14th December 1921. Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue received invitations to attend and did so, even though none were Teachtaí Dála (TDs) and thus in no position to speak. Lynch might have been had he stood in the general election of the previous year, as requested by the East Cork Sinn Féin.

However, when no word of acceptance from Lynch was received, another man, Séamus Fitzgerald, was selected (and elected) instead. When Fitzgerald chanced upon Lynch during the Dáil debates, the latter said that he had never received the offer, but reassured Fitzgerald that he was quite happy that he had been the one elected.[12]

image
National Concert Hall, Dublin, the site of the Dáil debates when it was the National University

Lynch was probably sincere in this, considering how little he thought of ‘speeches and fine talk’. The unedifying spectacle of “men who a few short months before were fighting as comrades side by side, now indulging in bitter recrimination, rancour, invective charges and counter charges” – as Deasy put it – was unlikely to have made him regret his missed opportunity in politics.[13]

(They were not the only ones so disgusted. Todd Andrews, who would later be Lynch’s aide-de-camp, found the debates so dispiriting that he walked away, convinced that only the Army could salvage anything out of the mess that politics had made.[14])

Dáil debate on the Treaty, 1921-22
Crowds outside the National University as the Dáil debated inside

At least Lynch had the opportunity while in Dublin to meet up with like-minded IRA officers. The house at 71 Heytesbury Street had long been used as a refuge for Volunteers on the run. Lynch had been nursed there through two illnesses. It was only fitting, then, for it to be the place of a reunion between him and Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows, all of whom, like Lynch, held senior positions in the IRA.

Lynch, O’Malley noted, “was square and determined looking. He tightened his pince-nez glasses and he muttered: ‘My God, it’s terrible, terrible.’”

Lynch was the first to break the sombre silence in the room. “I wish we knew what the other divisional officers thought and felt. That would make things easier.”

“Have you seen Collins?” asked O’Connor. “He was looking for you.”

“Yes, I have,” replied Lynch. “I met him and Eoin O’Duffy. They said the Treaty would give breathing space, allow the army to arm and equip, then we could declare war whenever a suitable opportunity came.”

“They mean to enforce the Treaty,” said a more sceptical O’Connor, “but we must organise.”

mellows
Liam Mellows

The chief problem, O’Malley said, was knowing who to trust. O’Connor was in favour of breaking away from the IRA GHQ control as soon as the Dáil debates were over. Nothing good could come from them or GHQ anymore. For now, they could rely only on each other. Robinson and O’Malley agreed. Mellows, in contrast, was content to wait, confident that, in any case, the IRA would never accept the Treaty, and that would be the end of the matter.

Short of a definite plan of action, the men could do little but agree to keep in touch before departing for the night.[15]

Lynch kept to this wait-and-see attitude when he later met with Dan Breen, who urged for them to forget the Truce and resume the war with Britain at once. Seeing Lynch’s lack of enthusiasm, Breen left in a huff.[16]

A Chance

O’Malley had first met Lynch in September 1920 while visiting Co. Cork as part of his travels as a GHQ organiser. Then the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, Lynch had impressed him as quiet but commanding, with O’Malley accompanying him in the capture of Mallow Barracks.[17]

But the two men never grew close, their relationship remaining a coolly professional one. This lack of shared sympathy would bedevil the Anti-Treatyites, hamstringing their attempts to coordinate effectively.

The mood amongst the anti-Treaty IRA had gone from bad to worse by the time Mulcahy summoned them for a sit-down in Banba Hall, Parnell Square, in January 1922. O’Malley was so suspicious that he went in with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat in case of arrest. Inside, the attendees sat in a semi-circle, the Anti-Treatyites to the right, their pro-Treaty counterparts on the left. Such self-segregation from the start did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

banba-hallWhen Mulcahy began by saying that the Free State intended to keep the name of the Republican Army, O’Connor cuttingly replied that a name did not make it so. Jim O’Donovan proceeded to call Collins a traitor. Collins leapt to his feet in fury amidst cries of ‘withdraw’ and ‘apologise’.

After Mulcahy restored some semblance of peace, he made a conciliatory suggestion: the Anti-Treatyites present could nominate two of their own to attend future GHQ meetings. When they withdrew to another room to talk this over, Lynch said he was in agreement. The others were not, preferring to make a clean break by setting up a command of their own, GHQ be damned, just as O’Connor had first suggested in Heytesbury Street.

Lynch stood his ground and threatened to go his own way. As the First Southern Division had the most manpower, controlled the most territory and was among the best armed, the other leaders had no choice but to back down. They had been cowed at the first challenge and by one of their own, something which none of them had anticipated.

Stalemated, the other Anti-Treatyites grudgingly agreed to give Mulcahy’s olive-branch a try. When they returned to a waiting Mulcahy to announce their decision, he was magnanimous enough to promise a convention for the IRA in two months’ time, where things could hopefully be straightened out for good.[18]

Limerick Takeover

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

As per Mulcahy’s proposal, O’Malley was selected as one of the Anti-Treatyites’ representatives. But O’Malley had little desire to be sitting in on meetings at GHQ, a body he had come to dismiss as an irrelevance at best, a hindrance at worst. Many of his peers were inclined to agree, prompting Lynch to do his utmost to prevent the widening gap between the anti and pro-Treaty factions from splitting into open warfare.

The first thing O’Malley did after his departure from Dublin was to call a meeting of the Second Southern Division. As their O/C, he placed the question of continued GHQ control to his brigades, of which one (East Limerick) was prepared to remain loyal, with the other four (Mid-Limerick, Kilkenny, Mid-Tipperary and South Tipperary) agreeing that the situation had become intolerable.[19]

Secure in the backing of most of his Division, O’Malley henceforth ignored all calls to bring him back to Dublin, including the summons to his own court-martial when GHQ finally realised his desertion. To make the estrangement official, the Mid-Limerick Brigade issued a proclamation, headed ‘Republican of Ireland’, on the 18th February, which explained that since the majority of GHQ were attempting to subvert the Republic, the Brigade could no longer recognise its authority.[20]

The dissenters were prepared to match their words with action. On the 7th March, the Limerick Chronicle informed its readers that “events in Limerick during the past couple of days have been rather significant, and in the minds of the citizens have created a certain amount of tension.”

Not that the citizens in question needed a newspaper to inform them of this. Two days before, IRA units from the GHQ-defying brigades entered the city and occupied a number of hotels as well as the disused wing of the District Mental Hospital – O’Malley, for one, appreciated the irony of that choice, given the state of the times.[21]

King John’s Castle remained in pro-Treaty hands. O’Malley had planned to take the medieval fortification in a surprise night-raid with the connivance of a sympathetic member of the garrison who was to open the gates to them at 11:30 pm. By 1 am, the inside man had yet to appear and O’Malley, fed up with waiting in the cold rain, allowed his sodden men to retire.[22]

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King John’s Castle, Limerick

Limerick Standoff

At least the Anti-Treatyites had the comforts of bed and board that their hotel strongpoints provided. A second proclamation was sent to the Limerick Chronicle on the 9th March, explaining further the reasons for the occupation.

Mulcahy was blamed for refusing to allow them to occupy the barracks recently vacated by the Crown forces, sending instead officers chosen on account of their loyalty to GHQ rather than to the Republic: “He seeks to ensure that no matter how the coming IRA Convention decides, the Provisional Government will hold all areas for the Free State Party.”

To prevent such opportunism, the Anti-Treatyites of Limerick had brought in their comrades from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Kerry, Waterford and Galway. The city had rapidly become a microcosm of the Treaty divide.[23]

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IRA men on top of an armoured car in Limerick in the wake of the British withdrawal

O’Malley felt Limerick was secure enough to briefly visit Dublin to meet Rory O’Connor – not, significantly, Lynch – and apprise him of the situation. O’Connor was encouraging but otherwise refused to commit himself, preferring instead, to O’Malley’s annoyance, to watch how things unfolded.

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Eoin O’Duffy

Meanwhile, Mulcahy and O’Duffy had travelled to Limerick on a mission of their own. The former had by then been promoted to Minister of Defence, with the latter stepping in his shoes as Chief of Staff. That two such senior figures had been sent showed how seriously the Provisional Government was taking the matter. Invites for anti-Treaty officers to meet with Mulcahy and O’Duffy in the Castle were declined, and the two GHQ men returned to Dublin with things as frayed as before.[24]

Within the Provisional Government, President Arthur Griffith was advocating a firm line, having come to believe that war was inevitable. In the only formal speech to the Cabinet that one witness, Ernest Blythe, remembered him making, Griffith argued that as they were now a government, with all the accompanying responsibilities, they had a duty to assert their authority.

Limerick Compromise

Collins, on whom the final decision rested (Blythe had no doubt about that), looked inclined to agree. Mulcahy then intervened, as Blythe recalled:

Mulcahy apparently had a great belief in Liam Lynch and a great confidence that he understood him and could rely on him, and he put forward the proposal of handing over the Limerick barracks to Liam Lynch, who would hold them at the disposal of the Government, subject to certain considerations.[25]

Relieved at finding a way to avoid conflict with his old comrades, Collins accepted the suggestion, much to Griffith’s annoyance.

On the 11th March, the citizens of Limerick learned “with intense relief”, in the words of the Limerick Chronicle, that a settlement had been reached. Although the newspaper did not know it, Lynch had taken the step of visiting the city to meet with officers of either faction, together and individually.

O’Malley gave no details in his memoirs, but whatever Lynch said was sufficient. Both sides pulled back from the brink and agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the city. The military barracks was to be in the hands of Pro-Treatyites until the building was entrusted to those local IRA units who had remained neutral during the manoeuvrings of the week before. Ironically, the last pro-Treaty men to leave the city were of the East Limerick Brigade, the only one in O’Malley’s Division to stay with the GHQ.[26]

The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.

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Anti-Treaty IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick

Press Relations

A month later, Lynch felt enough had been said about the Limerick flashpoint for him to set the record straight in a letter to the newspapers on the 27th April: “I have always avoided publicity, but my name has been brought forward so much recently that I am reluctantly forced to deal with the matter.”

For all the stated disdain for attention, Lynch was determined that he receive his due credit. It was less for his own sake and more to deny unearned plaudits claimed by others:

Regarding the statement by Beggar Bush’s Headquarters [GHQ] to the effect that they had done everything for unity in the Army, and that the other side had done everything possible to break it, I am sure all officers of high command in the Free State forces can verify my emphatic assertion that no officer did more than myself to maintain a united Army.

“It was a happy consummation for me to see about 700 armed troops on either side who were about to engage in mortal combat, eventually leave Limerick as comrades,” Lynch continued.

‘Comrades’ may have been an overstatement – O’Malley, for one, had threatened to arrest the dawdling officer in charge of the East Limerick men if they did not hurry up and go. But, as the Anti-Treatyites had been planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the Castle as a prelude to storming inside, ‘mortal combat’ had indeed been avoided.

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Arthur Griffith

Lynch had choice things to say about Griffith, who he accused of trying “hard to press the issue in a manner which would have resulted in fearful slaughter.” Considering Griffith’s hard-line stance to the Cabinet, this was not an unreasonable allegation to make.

But it was the “Junior officers of the old G.H.Q. staff” who Lynch laid the blame for the Limerick standoff as well as the present lamentable conditions. For when Lynch was writing, the IRA Convention for March had been banned by Mulcahy on the orders of Griffith, forcing the previously reserved Lynch to decide exactly where he stood.[27]

A New Leadership

O’Malley did not consider the proscription of the IRA Convention to mean much to him. The Second Southern Division, after all, already outside of anyone else’s interference as far as he was concerned.

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Joe McKelvey

When O’Connor called him to his office in Dublin in an urgent dispatch, O’Malley accepted. There, he found Lynch and Deasy, along with some others, including Oscar Traynor and Joe McKelvey, the latter being the O/C of the Third Northern Division (covering Belfast, Antrim and Down) which had added its strength to Lynch and O’Malley’s two Southern ones.

Having previously played peacemaker, Lynch now threw caution to the winds. He suggested they hold the Convention anyway, regardless of what GHQ or the Provisional Government ordered. All the other IRA commands would be notified, whether they were friendly or not, so they could have at least the option of attending.

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Michael Kilroy

All agreed. Michael Kilroy, O/C of the Mayo Brigade, suggested that they elect a Chief of Staff, at least in the interim before the Convention. Lynch was selected, with O’Connor as Director of Engineering, Mellows as Quartermaster-General, Jim O’Donovan (he who had called Collins a traitor), as Director of Chemicals, Seán Russell as Director of Munitions, and O’Malley as Director of Organisation. If GHQ refused to uphold the Republic anymore, then they would create a counter-General Headquarters that would.

Lynch next informed the rest that they would now have to remain in Dublin. As Traynor was O/C of the Dublin Brigade, Lynch tasked him with providing headquarters for them in his city. Traynor suggested the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square. The opposition to the Treaty now had a leadership.[28]

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Parnell Square, Dublin (present day)

The Rule of .45

The Convention went ahead as originally intended on the 26th March in the Mansion House. Annie Farrington, the proprietress of Barry’s Hotel where many of the delegates stayed, remembered the “terrific excitement. There was great diversity of views and they were arguing it out.” Thankfully, none of these arguments ever came to blows.

Lynch was among the visitors. The others warned Farrington “not to say anything flippant before him, as he was very religious.” The respect they held for him was obvious: “They looked upon him as a saint.”[29]

Outside the Mansion House, an armoured car had been parked, its squat bulk contrasting against the cheery front of the building with scarlet geraniums in boxes set by tall lampposts and the freshly painted coat of arms above the main door. Inside was similarly contradictory, the beautiful rooms with their elegant furniture, crystal chandelier and oil-paintings of former Lord Lieutenants at odds with the grim, agitated mood of the delegates.

When one objected to the lack of rules concerning a particular suggestion, another man replied tersely: “We have the rule of .45,” meaning the .45 calibre automatics on prominent display in the Same Browne belts slung over many a tweed jacket. It was an impolitic remark but at least an honest one.[30]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Hardening Stance

Numbers-wise, the convention was a success. It had attracted – in the estimate of the Freeman’s Journal – 220 delegates, representing nineteen brigades, all of whom prepared to defy Mulcahy’s threat that any Army attendees would be suspended.[31]

In terms of soothing the nascent tensions, however, the event, in the words of Joseph Lawless, “proved itself to be a fiasco.” While Lawless did not attend the Convention – as an officer in the newly-formed National Army, he for one was mindful of Mulcahy’s warning – Lawless listened to numerous discussions in Fleming’s Hotel, another establishment where the delegates were either staying or called in at.

Despite his military commission, Lawless was able to mingle with his anti-Treaty friends. But there was little disguising the fact that they now regarded him as an enemy, however joking they were in their references to him as a ‘Free Stater’.

Lynch, Lawless thought when he saw him, “was concerned and somewhat perturbed at this turn of events.” Things were clearly not moving in a direction to his liking. Others were less finicky as they openly talked about their intentions to pack the Convention with delegates in order to shift the Army into a definite anti-Treaty stance. Not that the Convention would necessarily be the last word:

When it became apparent that their plane [sic] was unlikely to succeed, their interest in the convention lessened, and from the flippant remarks made about it, it seemed clear that they did not feel bound by anything that happened there unless it accorded with their own views.

A tendency to ignore unwanted rulings, even those from their own side, would prove a problem for the anti-Treaty IRA in its increasingly cavalier attitude towards discipline. Even more worrying was the talk at the Convention, however vague, of civil war. Even so, Lawless did not think that anyone believed that such a dire possibility could or would really occur.[32]

Reaffirmed Allegiances

Guards posted at the doors to the Mansion House had barred anyone from the press, ensuring that the public was left in the dark as to what had gone on inside. Shortly afterwards, the Convention attendees moved to amend that by publishing the resolutions they had passed, giving some indication to the rest of the country as to the general direction they intended to take the IRA:

  1. That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
  2. That it should be maintained as the Army of the Irish Republic, under an Executive appointed by the convention.
  3. That the Army shall be under the supreme control of such Executive, which shall draft a constitution for submission to a subsequent convention.[33]
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Richard Mulcahy

There was no room here for GHQ, the Dáil or anything that smacked of the Treaty. Forty years later, Deasy would have the opportunity to pose a question to Mulcahy, who confirmed that it had been on his advice that the Provisional Government banned the Convention, convinced as he was that it would only lead to further division and turmoil. Deasy argued back that such a heavy-handed move did nothing but offend those who were otherwise moderate in their opposition to the Treaty, Lynch included.

Whether Mulcahy had been correct, if unsuccessful, in trying to nip the problem in the bud, or if he unwittingly pushed many down the path he was hoping to avoid, is one of the many unanswerable questions that riddle this contentious period in Irish history.[34]

Influence and Respect

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Oscar Traynor

A temporary Executive which had been appointed during the Convention met the following day in Gardiner Street. After arriving late with the other members of the First Southern Division who were on the Executive, Lynch surprised the rest by announcing that there were too many Dubliners on the board and too few from his own Division.

Upset at this brusqueness, Oscar Traynor and Joseph O’Connor, both officers in the Dublin IRA, withdrew from the meeting. It took a day or two for the pair to swallow their pride and return to help the rest of the Executive iron out the details for the next convention on the 9th April.[35]

Lynch once again had his way, when three of his allies – Deasy, O’Donoghue and another Corkman, Tom Hales – were among the sixteen men elected to the Executive. When asked beforehand as to the reasons for the April convention, Lynch replied that he wanted to ensure that those particular three were with him on the new ruling board.

It was a measure of the trust in which he had in his Corkonian comrades. At the end of this latest convention, the new leadership body met and reaffirmed Lynch as their Chief of Staff – not that there were any other contenders – with Deasy replacing him as O/C of the First Southern Division.[36]

Despite this easy assumption of power, Lynch’s authority was not quite as assured as his rank might apply. The problem was, in the opinion of Joseph O’Connor, that while there were many worthy individuals on the Executive, none – Lynch included – were strong enough to rule the others.

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Group photograph of anti-Treaty IRA members at the Mansion House, 1922, with Liam Lynch (fourth from the left in the front row), Florence O’Donoghue (left of Lynch) and Liam Deasy (right of Lynch)

Fault lines

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Rory O’Connor

Consequently, cracks emerged, out of which two main factions were formed, with neither feeling it necessary to accommodate the other when they disagreed. “The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor remembered the sorry situation.[37]

This was despite the advantage Lynch held through his position as Chief of Staff. According to O’Malley, Lynch “possessed the same influence as any of the other members, although perhaps his words were listened to with added respect.”[38]

But it might be equally true to say that Lynch had no more influence than the others, and even that was often grudgingly allowed.

As for respect, it was to be in short supply, as Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue found themselves under suspicion by their more hard-line Executive peers, most notably Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Séumas Robinson. While the latter group had lost all respect for former comrades like Collins, Mulcahy and O’Duffy, they gave only scant more regard towards Lynch and his cohorts, seeing them as well-meaning but lacking in the necessary zeal to be counted on.[39]

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride summed up this attitude of wary condescension in his memoirs. The future government minister admitted that he did not know Lynch very well, only that he appeared to be the strong, silent type. MacBride assumed he was capable, otherwise he would not have risen to where he was. The officers under his command, at least, respected him considerably. But, all the same, MacBride could not help regarding his Chief of Staff as, at heart, a bit of a compromiser.[40]

Which may say more about MacBride, but it showed the difficulties Lynch would face in guiding his men through the difficult times ahead – men who would show little patience for any sort of guidance.

To be continued in: The Chains of Trust: Liam Lynch and the Slide into Civil War, 1922 (Part II)

References

[1] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992), pp. 312-5

[2] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 375-6

[3] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 27-30 ; Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 36,251/19

[4] NLI, MS 36,251/18

[5] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7a/5

[6] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, NLI, MS 31,239

[7] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 33-4

[8] Ibid, p. 95

[9] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,244

[10] Ibid, MS 31,240/1

[11] Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/22

[12] Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

[13] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, p. 32

[14] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 93

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 96 ; O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[16] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981), p. 179

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 237

[18] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 70-2

[19] Ibid, p. 72

[20] Limerick Chronicle, 18/02/1922

[21] Ibid, 07/03/1922

[22] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 76-8

[23] Limerick Chronicle, 09/03/1922

[24] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 80-1

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 142-3

[26] Limerick Chronicle, 11/03/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 82

[27] Irish Independent, 27/04/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 81-82

[28] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 83-5

[29] Farrington, Annie (BMH / WS 749), pp. 5-6

[30] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 148

[31] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[32] Lawless, Joseph V. (BMH / WS 1,043), pp. 436-7

[33] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[34] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 38-9

[35] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 3-4

[36] MacEoin, p. 291 ; O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 224

[37] O’Connor, pp. 4, 10

[38] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 86

[39] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 39-40

[40] MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005), p. 93

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981)

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992)

MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005)

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

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

 

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Limerick Chronicle

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Farrington, Annie, WS 749

Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1,043

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

 

National Library of Ireland Collections

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Liam Lynch Papers

 

University College Dublin Archive

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

The Rift

There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.

Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – which had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.

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Arthur Griffith

“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”

He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”

To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more, he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.

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Count Plunkett

Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.

Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.

It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that for some, however, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.

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The Mansion House, site of the Plunkett Convention

A Way Out?

This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:

…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.[1]

Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.

At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.[2]

William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause, and watched as Father Michael O’Flanagan moved across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.[3]

The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.[4]

Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.[5]

Coming to Heel

As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.[6]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.

The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.

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Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.[7]

According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.

Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.

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Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.

O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:

For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.[8]

There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.[9]

However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.[10]

(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.[11])

The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:

Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.[12]

Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.

Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.[13]

Surveying the Aftermath

In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:

  • An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
  • A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
  • A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
  • An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting in Dublin.
  • A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
  • A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
  • The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, formerly owned by Patrick Pearse.
  • A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.[14]

As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:

While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.[15]

The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.

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Liam de Róiste

Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.[16]

Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.

To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.

Committee Politics

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William O’Brien

The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.

When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.

And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.

Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.

O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.

Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.

When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”

Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.[17]

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Gresham Hotel, Dublin, modern

The Liberty Clubs

Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.

On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.plunkett

Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.[18]

Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.[19]

Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.[20]

Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.[21]

The Clubs Take Root

Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.[22]

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Count Plunkett at work

Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.[23]

John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”[24]

0209Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.[25]

Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.[26]

Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.[27]

Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.[28]

Teething Troubles

Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:

The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.

I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.

I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.[29]

The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:

It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.[30]

The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.

Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.[31]sinn_fc3a9in_newspaper

William O’Brien

The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.

He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.

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Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.

Efforts towards public unity had been made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.

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Longford election poster for Joseph McGuinness, May 1917

McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.

Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.

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Arthur Griffith

A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.

Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.

Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.[32]

Trouble at Beresford Place

Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”[33]

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Jack Plunkett, mugshot

Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.

Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.

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Crowd gathered at Beresford Place to hear Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha

When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.

The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.

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Arrested

As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.

Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.

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Inspector Mills being moved to a stretcher after being struck on the head

After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.

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John Mills

Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”

It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.[34]

Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.[35]

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George Oliver Plunkett (front right) and his brother Jack (front left), with some other prisoners, upon their release in June 1917

‘Hot and Strong’

The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.

So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.banc-sf-1917-1024x824

Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:

…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.[36]

Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:

…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.[37]

Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.

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Cathal Brugha

Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”

Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.

Walking the Plank

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Tommy Dillon

As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.

Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.[38]

It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.

O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.

“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.

“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.[39]

Hard Truths

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Seán T. O’Kelly

Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.

With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.

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3 Mountjoy Square Dublin

By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.

Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.

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Inside 3 Mountjoy Square

Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.

It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.[40]

‘A Soldier and a Statesman’

Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.

The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.

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The Round Room, Mansion House

This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.

As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:

Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.

Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.

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Éamon de Valera, in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer

The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.

When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”

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Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera

The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.[41]

The New Leadership

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Helena Molony

Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.[42]

The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.[43]

Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.

With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.

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Count Plunkett (front row, far left), Father Michael O’Flanagan (back row, far left), Éamon de Valera (front row, centre) and Arthur Griffith (besides O’Flanagan)

The End

Both Griffith ad Plunkett were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with the elections of the former as one of the dual Vice-Presidents (Father O’Flanagan being the other) and the latter to the twenty-four-strong Executive Council. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.

Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.

Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.

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(From left to right) Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Laurence O’Neill

Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”

Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).

“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.

Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.

“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.

“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.

“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”

There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.[44]

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Members of the first Dáil, 1919, with Count Plunkett in the front row, fourth from the left, with an umbrella-carrying Cathal Brugha besides him

Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.

The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.[45]

But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[4] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 91-2

[5] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 258

[6] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, p. 133

[7] O’Shiel, p. 32 ; O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), Part I, p. 63

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 148

[9] FJ, 20/04/1917

[10] Dillon Plunkett, p. 258 ; FJ, 20/04/1917 ; New Ireland, 28/04/1917

[11] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 394 ; Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 53 ; Molony, Helena (BMH / WS 391)

[12] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 30-1

[13] FJ, 20/04/1917

[14] IT, 28/04/1917

[15] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), p. 220

[16] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698) Part II, p. 168

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, pp. 112-4

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 11,383/6/12

[19] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/13

[20] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/14,16

[21] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/17

[22] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/16

[23] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/10

[24] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/07

[25] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/8

[26] Ibid, MS 11,383/3/15

[27] Ibid, MS 11,383/11/5

[28] Ibid, MS 11,383/6/26

[29] Cork Examiner, 15/06/1917

[30] Ibid, 06/06/1917

[31] Nugent, pp. 93, 95

[32] O’Brien, pp. 130-133

[33] Plunkett Dillon, p. 260

[34] Ibid ; Irish Times, 11/06/1917, 12/06/1917, 17/11/1917

[35] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[36] Dillon, p. 395

[37] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8544

[38] Dillon, pp. 395-6

[39] O’Brien, pp. 136-7

[40] Freeman’s Journal, 26/10/1917

[41] O’Shiel, pp. 85-8 ; O’Brien, p. 102

[42] Molony, pp. 50-1

[43] Dillon, p. 399

[44] Irish Times, 03/03/1922

[45] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 268, 308

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

New Ireland

Books

O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

Bureau of Military Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Molony, Helena, WS 391

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collections

Count Plunkett Papers

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Article

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

 

 

Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

A New Voice

“It is difficult for us at present to visualise the circumstances under which this Convention was held,” so the Monsignor Michael J. Curran recounted in later years about the Plunkett Convention that took place on the 19th April 1917. The closest thing Ireland had had to a ruling party since the days of Parnell, the Irish Parliament Party (IPP), was a spent force by then, drained and discredited, but who or what would take its place was by no means certain.

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Sinn Féin postcard

The most visible alternative for the moment was George Noble Plunkett. The 66-year old Papal Count had been better known in the past as a celebrated art scholar whose comfortable life of genteel indolence, along with much else in the country, had been upturned in the Easter Week of 1916. His eldest son had been executed for his part in the Rising, the other two imprisoned, and himself stripped of his National Museum directorship and exiled to England.

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Count Plunkett

The wheel had turned yet again upon his election in January 1917 to the parliamentary seat of North Roscommon. Plunkett had not even needed to be present for the most part – he only returned to Ireland in the last few days before polling – with most of the work being done by an impromptu alliance of groups and individuals, united in their frustration at the political stagnation. Much had been promised by the IPP in the form of Home Rule, and yet Ireland was as much an unwilling ward of the British Crown as ever.

Immediately after his election, the Count had transformed from a respectable gentleman to a firebrand as he lambasted the failings of the IPP while half-promising, half-predicting a cleansing of the country’s woes with the certainty of a Biblical prophet. That attempts had been made, almost certainly by the IPP, to discredit him only inadvertently confirmed his status as standard-bearer of the new movement. Yet not everyone could look at the Count and agree with such elevation.

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Police reports to Dublin Castle, while noting the apathy that gripped the Irish Party, commented on how “the Count as a party leader does not appear to inspire enthusiasm.” In that, the police, and many of Plunkett’s so-called allies, were unknowingly in accord.

Clouding matters further was there had been no elections, either for Parliament or local government bodies, since before the start of the war in Europe. These public bodies were left with men (they were invariably men) who did not necessarily speak for their constituents anymore, particularly the young, who had gone through such a dramatic transformation in the wake of the 1916 Rising. What opposition there was in Ireland to the IPP or British rule was unfocused, fragmentary and, as often as not, at odds with each other.

If nothing else, the convention called by Count Plunkett was the first attempt to voice the new feeling in the country and hear what it had to say. If it could somehow smooth over the differences in the various opposition groups as well, then so much the better.[1]

Who’s Who

Differentiating these factions was not always easy, for in their hostility to the IPP and the desire to break the British connection, they could often appear indistinguishable to each other. Nonetheless, several distinct strands of thought could be discerned from the morass of post-1916 feeling:

  • Sinn Féin, as envisioned by its founder, Arthur Griffith, with a preference for constitutional methods.
  • Sinn Féin but remoulded on more Republican lines, an option popular among those who had fought in the Rising.
  • The Liberty Clubs, set up by Count Plunkett as a hard-line alternative.[2]

Another group was the Irish Nation League. Formed in Derry in July 1916 as an anti-Partition lobby, it had spread from the Ulster counties to the rest of the country, holding a rally in Dublin in September which had been attracted considerable attention. But that had been the high point for the League. Now it was stagnating for lack of drive and a failure to secure the newly popular radical ground. The League’s mistake had been to try and replace the Irish Party at the time when the IPP was a failed model.[3]

Of these bodies, the Liberty Clubs were the most recent, being formed from May 1917 while riding the momentum of the Plunkett Convention from the month before. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, was the oldest and enjoyed the benefits of being an already established name. It was perhaps only fitting that the two men at the heads of these two groups, Plunkett and Griffith respectively, should be at loggerheads from the start.

people_griffith
Arthur Griffith

They stood on the opposite ends of the Nationalist spectrum, the Count demanding immediate action, against a more cautious Griffith. But there were times when the animosity spilled from the strictly political to the unpleasantly personal. According to the Count’s daughter, Geraldine, in her not-unbiased memoirs, Griffith had written “several savage letters”, accusing him of making political capital out of his dead son, to which the Count had managed to reply “with his habitual courtesy.”[4]

At the Plunkett Convention, however, its namesake would prove to be the aggressive one, attempting what amounted to a hostile takeover of Sinn Féin, forcing Griffith on the defensive.

‘Sinn Féin’?

Their initial point of contention was absentionism. The Count knew exactly where he stood there: he would not under any circumstances take his seat for North Roscommon at Westminster. As well as making this publicly clear, he expected his allies to commit to the same principle. At a meeting in Plunkett’s house in February, the trade unionist William O’Brien voiced his concerns that taking such a definite stand so soon would risk alienating the wider Irish public. He was taken aback when Griffith, who was also present, agreed.[5]

O’Brien had reason to be surprised, for Griffith had long pioneered absentionism as a means of separating the country from Britain. For this, Geraldine and her brother Joseph – the future 1916 signatory – had admired him, along with his “fine historical sense….and policy of self-reliance” for Ireland. But in the new post-Rising country, Griffith’s position was more tenuous than he cared to admit.[6]

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Darrell Figgis

‘Sinn Féin’ had been popularised, in one of those quirks of history, by the British authorities who had labelled the Irish Volunteers as such due to the perception of the actual Sinn Féin as a quixotic cause. The journalist Darrell Figgis remembered how the pre-1916 Sinn Féin “was a title of opprobrium. It was a title of a small minority, considered to be more noisy than numerous, expostulant but powerless.”[7]

This was a view shared by Seán T. O’Kelly, who estimated that Sinn Féin, of which he was a joint-honorary secretary, had had no more than a hundred members in Dublin before the Rising.[8]

And now – what a difference! Sinn Féin Clubs were everywhere, with affiliation fees pouring into the head offices of 6 Harcourt Street, allowing Griffith the luxury of keeping two paid organisers on the road. That the front-page header of the Nationality (the latest newsletter of his) bore the subtitle ‘edited by Arthur Griffith’, the first time his name had been so displayed, showed how much of an asset his name had become.[9]

sinn_fc3a9in_bank_at_no-_6_harcourt_street_dublin_following_shelling-1-e1458059722107
Sinn Féin headquarters, 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

And it had been thanks to Dublin Castle’s misnomer of the Easter Rising as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ that it was now the leading political brand in Ireland. This was despite Sinn Féin having had nothing to do with the insurrection, a misunderstanding that Griffith was in no hurry to correct, much to the annoyance of those who had actually been involved in the fighting and were resentful of his piggybacking on their efforts.

Besides, Griffith was seen as far too moderate for their tastes. In Count Plunkett, they saw a more agreeably hard-line totem around which to rally.[10]

Traveler Digital Camera

The Game of Politics

Some disdained the use of politics altogether. In Frongoch Camp, those prisoners who were initiates in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) held a series of meeting to determine their future course of action. At one, attended by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, it was agreed that, upon being freed, they would bring the IRB into the realm of politics in order to best serve the national cause. After all, news from Ireland told of how the IPP was weak and their own popularity strong, so the time seemed ripe to replace the old establishment with one more in tune with their aims.

One IRB member, Eamon T. Dore, had not been invited to this particular meeting, which he attributed to a falling-out he had had with the increasingly influential Collins. In any case, Dore did not approve of the decision, fearing that the IRB would be enmeshed with the usual intrigue and compromise of politics.

frongoch-internment-camp
Frongoch Camp

Dore met with Mulcahy and another Frongoch alumni/IRB member, Michael Staines, in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, after their release. It was February 1917 and the North Roscommon by-election was underway. Mulcahy persuaded the other two to come with him to Griffith’s house in the North Strand, as he wanted his advice on what to do next. Evidently a generous man with his time, Griffith told them that, in his opinion, they should focus on bringing Ireland’s case to the Peace Conference, set to be held in Paris after the war in Europe was over.

This was not to Dore’s liking. He argued that if Britain won the war, it would never give Ireland a fair chance and, if it lost, well, then it would be in no position to tell them what to do anyway. To Dore, this exchange was symptomatic of the sort of woolly thinking that was all too common amongst men like Griffith.[11]

rory-oconnor-rumpled
Rory O’Connor

Even those willing to lend a hand in the political arena disdained those who were too involved. Laurence Nugent had helped organise the Plunkettite campaign in North Roscommon. He was close to Rory O’Connor, one of the few Rising leaders who had escaped imprisonment. For his part, O’Connor was working both on the Count’s behalf and in helping to reorganise the Irish Volunteers. Through O’Connor, Nugent witnessed the attitudes of many who adapted to the new political landscape while remaining contemptuous of it.

“We were not politicians, although we were now well initiated into the game of politics,” was how Nugent put it. The politicians were a different breed: “They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines,” preferring instead the passive resistance espoused by Sinn Féin.

Nothing could have been further from the minds of those like O’Connor who were using the period of calm to prepare for the next round in the fight against Britain, one that would not be confined to Dublin but with the whole of Ireland as its battlefield. As O’Connor had said of his men when he saw that the Rising was doomed: “Send them home. We shall want them again.”[12]

Keeping it in the Family

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Thomas Dillon

While waiting for the resumption of war, O’Connor was hard at work arranging the Plunkett Convention for April. He was helped in this by Thomas Dillon, the Count’s son-in-law. Dillon had married Geraldine on Easter Sunday 1916, following which the newlyweds had watched from their hotel balcony on Sackville Street as her brothers marched up towards the General Post Office (GPO) at the head of their men to begin the Rising. When Geraldine asked to help inside the GPO, it was O’Connor who was sent out to turn her away on Joseph’s behalf.[13]

O’Connor was also romantically involved with a Plunkett daughter, and had worn throughout that turbulent week in Dublin a holy medal in his pocket, given to him by Fiona Plunkett. He would remain on close terms with the family up until his execution in the Civil War. According to Nugent, Josephine Plunkett, the Count’s wife, acted as go-between for O’Connor while he was occupying the Four Courts in 1922, as “speaking to her was the same as speaking to Rory.”

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Rory O’Connor with the Count’s sons, Jack and George Plunkett

He and Fiona never got as far as marriage, with Geraldine describing their romance as a “very frustrating” one for her sister. Nugent, as O’Connor’s friend, put it more delicately: “the bullet that killed him in Mountjoy affected the life of a lady member of a great Irish family.”[14]

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

Another budding revolutionary leader who benefitted from the support of the Plunketts was Michael Collins. Geraldine first met him when he was a “very tired young man”, newly arrived from London. He was put to work handling their rent books, answering official letters and filing away papers. Collins took lunch with the Plunketts and quickly made an impression, at least on Geraldine, in whose opinion: “no one ever had a better clerk.”[15]

(Not every member of the family had such a fond image of the Big Fella. Eoghan Plunkett, Geraldine’s nephew, remembered the future hero as a “pup, a nasty piece of work.” Among his sins was avoiding the living-room carpet in favour of the bare part of the floor in order to make more noise. However, Eoghan would not have been born then and his stories are second-hand).[16]

Michael Collins

normal_p-24-001
Joseph Mary Plunkett

Under Collins’ supervision, the muddled financial books began to take some semblance of order (no one in the family could be accused of being too worldly). But Collins did not intend to shuffle papers and juggle sums forever. He had been recommended to Joseph by the IRB in London, of which Collins had been a member, and he continued to act in that capacity in Dublin, helping Joseph to organise the embryonic uprising while serving as his bodyguard in a measure of the growing trust between them.[17]

Collins became a common sight on the family property at Larkfield, south-west of Dublin. The Volunteers who were based there would see him passing as they churned out shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades in preparation for the coming insurrection. He impressed them with his “sense of hurry and earnestness,” while causing annoying with his brusqueness and amateurish attempts to instruct them in their work.[18]

Collins’ lack of tact did not seem to have improved by the time of the North Roscommon by-election at the start of 1917. “The reactions of many being that he was a typical Corkman – some people thought he was a pusher [as in pushy] – and he was resented at that time,” according to William O’Brien, who met Collins while they were both assisting in the Plunkett campaign.[19]

On the other hand, another canvasser, Kevin O’Shiel accredited Collins – along with Griffith and Father Michael O’Flanagan – with the smooth running of the election by convincing his more bellicose colleagues of the gains to be had through the electoral process.[20]

Collins’ influence was such that many observers attributed the rise of the Liberty Clubs not so much to Count Plunkett but to him and the IRB. To Richard Walsh, a future TD and a member of the IRB himself at the time, the Clubs were “the public or outward expression” of the IRB which sponsored the Clubs in order “to give public expression and support to the IRB’s policy of physical force.”

Certainly, the militant philosophy espoused by the Clubs was in line with the IRB’s. Furthermore, as Walsh described, “Collins’ position as Secretary to Count Plunkett meant that he was acting as Secretary of the Liberty Clubs.”[21]

Dillon also linked the growth of the Clubs to Collins and the IRB:

The Liberty Clubs proposed by Count Plunkett were being founded, probably [emphasis mine] under the aegis of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Michael Collins had begun to reorganise throughout the country immediately after his release from internment in Frongoch, at the end of 1916.[22]

The use of word ‘probably’ indicates that not even the Count’s son-in-law was entirely sure what was going on.

Not so easily impressed was Dore, whose account of how he and Collins came to the Plunkett Convention puts the latter in a different light to the near-omniscient mastermind as he is often portrayed. Collins, Dore, Staines and some others were hanging about Dublin one lazy afternoon when they heard there was something going on at the Mansion House. Arriving late, they were only allowed in because Dore knew one of the doormen.[23]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Union of Advanced Thought

Delegates from the various public bodies throughout Ireland arrived at the Mansion House on the 19th April as per the instructions sent out by Count Plunkett. Admission tickets were checked at the doors by members of the Irish Volunteers acting as stewards, a sign of how the closely the new radical politics and the military men were in concord.

The large number of female attendees was notable, as were those from the younger male generation, politics in Ireland previously being the reserve of elderly or middle-aged men. Even the Freeman’s Journal, an organ of the IPP and thus a bitter critic of the Count, recognised that something exceptional was taking place with its headline NATIONALISM – NEW STYE – COUNT PLUNKETT’S “UNION” OF ADVANCED THOUGHT.

In keeping with the mood of the country, Sinn Féin badges were conspicuously displayed throughout the hall. Rousing cries of “Up Sinn Féin” greeted Count Plunkett as he made his way on the platform to take the chair. The callers may not have done so had they known what the Count truly thought of Sinn Fein and Griffith, and vice versa.

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Sinn Féin postcard

Plunkett began by thanking his guests for attending, particularly those who had had to travel from great distance. He then asked for a vote of commemoration to be made: “That this assembly, at its first meeting, desire to honour the memory of the men who have died for Ireland.”

The audience stood in respect as the vote was passed. The second request was also accepted without condition: “In honour of those who faced death for Ireland and who are now in prison as felons, and those men and women who had been exiled.”

Unstated, but palatable, was the knowledge that among these said men were members of the Plunkett family: Joseph, executed before a firing squad, Jack and George, both sentenced to lengthy penal sentences, and their father, the Count himself, banished to England until two months ago. After all, as Griffith had cruelly (if not altogether inaccurately) said, Plunkett had built a fine career out of such loss.

Joe_and_Count
Joseph and the Count Plunkett

A Free-Souled Nation

Count Plunkett said he would not insult these captives in question by asking for their release, insisting instead that they should be treated as prisoners of war. These men should be paid at least the same respect that a German or any other foreign POW would be treated, instead of degraded with the status of criminals.

“It is an honour,” a voice interrupted from the assembly. Plunkett said that he knew that these men took it as such and that they were prepared to suffer accordingly but – in a statement that was especially meaningful coming from him – “we should not suffer it for them.”

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George and Jack Plunkett upon surrender, 1916

After the resulting applause had died down, Plunkett congratulated his audience and Ireland upon the occasion of this great and representative gathering. It was hard to realise that this was the first free assembly of Irishmen on their own soil for many a century (cheers). It was the one of the first assemblies in the history of the country in which the leading note was a disregard for all aliens (cheers).

“In your name,” continued the Count, warming to his theme, “I made a series of declarations which you can assent by standing up. They are that –”

  • We proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation.
  • We assert Ireland’s right to freedom from all foreign control, defying the authority of any foreign Parliament to make laws for the country.
  • We affirm the right of the Irish people to declare their will in law, and enforce their decisions in their own land.
  • To maintain the status of Ireland as a distinct nation, we demand representation at the coming Peace Conference in Paris.
  • It is the duty of those nations taking part in the said Conference to guarantee the liberty of small nations like Ireland.
  • Our claim to complete independence is founded on human right and the law of nations.
  • We declare that Ireland has never yielded in our power to attain complete liberty.

Each of these declarations was greeted with hearty cheers and the standing in assent by all those present. Further capturing the mood were the two women who, after the lunch break, draped a tricolour over Plunkett’s table on the podium, prompting fresh acclaim and refrains of ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week’.

A New Organisation?

So far, so good – nothing said had been met by anything other than approval and enthusiasm. Plunkett introduced the two Labour delegates from the Dublin Trades Council. Its vice-president, Thomas Farren, wished God-speed to the work started that day.

“We believe,” Farren said, “that this is the start of a pure political organisation for this country. Organised labour in Ireland is prepared at all times to make any sacrifice necessary on behalf of an Irish Republic.”

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William O’Brien

The other Labour man, William O’Brien, spoke next. He was brief but precise, with a promise to adhere to every word of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, making this the only explicitly republican – as opposed to merely separatist – utterance made at the event.

After the hour for lunch, the Count resumed proceedings by announcing his wish to explain his proposals for the national organising of Ireland. He added that he was not calling it the reorganisation as the country within their time had never been organised – at least, not in any way to speak on behalf of its people (hear, hear).

“Two things the Irishman could not separate from life were,” said the Count grandly, “first, his reverence and subjection to God, and, secondly, his duty to his fellows in establishing liberty.”

Plunkett proceeded to outline how this establishment of liberty would be done. Clubs or circles would be formed in villages, towns and parishes, under a central body in Dublin and supported by an annual subscription from each member.

image
The Round Room of the Mansion House, where the Plunkett Convention was held (this is a session of the Dáil in 1921)

A New Name?

Their first business would be to prepare for future elections. “However long delayed,” the Count said, relishing the imminent fate of the hapless IPP, “the axe will fall, and political executions will be considerable.”

In the lead-up to this, he continued, they must prepare themselves. Every parish in the country was to have groups of men ready to secure the polling booths and ensure that the will of the people be carried out.

Luckily, a new generation of young men had emerged and were standing for Ireland (hear, hear). They could not vote but they had the future of the country in their hands, and so should be used accordingly as a national army (cheers).

Now at his most demagogic, Plunkett strove to leave his audience in no doubt as to the immediacy of the situation:

They might be required to at any moment to have a movement going like lightning across the whole of Ireland, stirring the whole people, making them as one man, establishing a series of resistance which no government could ignore and which no government could withstand.

There might be, the Count admitted, almost as an afterthought, certain impediments to these ambitions of his, namely the presence of similar societies already in existence. In this regard, Plunkett was prepared to be accommodating – within certain parameters.

Any such group would have a right to be included in the new organisation, providing that they adhere to certain standards, namely abstentionist and a demand for nothing short of complete independence for Ireland. If they agreed to these terms, then they would be accepted as a valid part of the organisation. It was an offer of assimilation that the Count clearly believed to be a generous one.

Offhandedly, he added, he would be prepared to accept a new name to fit this new organisation. Most of the audience would have assumed that this was simply the Count thinking aloud. They would have had little idea that his stated willingness to discard old names – names like, say, Sinn Féin – amounted to a declaration of war on some others who were present.

A New Alliance?

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Seán Milroy

A close friend and ally of Griffith’s, Seán Milroy, spoke next. He moved that there existed an urgent need for united action between such bodies as Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish-American Alliance, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Labour Party.

In order to effect this coalition, a body to be called the Executive Council of the Irish National Alliance should be formed, consisting of five members elected by the convention, with three more appointed by each of the groups involved. Such level of detail suggested that Milroy, and possibly Griffith, had spent some time thinking this out beforehand.

From there, they would begin the process of contesting the next elections and presenting Ireland’s case at the coming Peace Conference. The culmination of this broad front would be the formation, at the earliest possible date, of a constitutional assembly to be known as the Council of the Irish Nation. Griffith seconded this motion, warning the audience that unless they banded together, the IPP would return to prominence.

herbert_moore_pim_small
Herbert Pim

Herbert Pim also weighed in with his support, saying that he spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, one of the groups responsible for these proceedings. Had it not been for Sinn Féin, Pim said, this convention would not now be happening. Speaking as the self-confessed jealous guardian of the Sinn Féin name, he joked that it would be a pity to lose a brand so distasteful a flavour in the mouths of their Saxon friends (laughter).

There was but the slightest of elbowing here, with Plunkett’s advocacy of an entirely new organisation rubbing up against Pim’s reminder of the work Sinn Féin had already accomplished. Still, neither Milroy, Griffith nor Pim had ventured anything irretrievably at odds with the Count’s grand vision.

A New Problem

Had the mood been different, the relationships more trusting, this might have been taken as healthy discourse, different takes on essentially the same thing. Instead, the Count heard their stated preference for a confederation of groups, as opposed to his single centralised one, as a sop to those who were not yet sold on the abstentionist policy. It was not a point Plunkett was interested in stepping back from.

Standing his ground, Plunkett told them that they had pledged against sending their representatives to Westminster. From now on, Ireland must approach the Peace Conference as nothing other than a separate nation. He added a warning that perhaps doubled as a threat: did they think the young men of Ireland would support them otherwise?

There was only one sacrifice, the Count continued, to be asked of an Irish patriot, and that was to put his life at the behest of the nation (hear, hear). He had not left his comfortable position as Director of the National Museum to be told his policy was too advanced or that he was alone in his views.

(Technically, Plunkett had not so much left the Museum as was fired, but no one was churlish enough to point this out.)

He was *not* alone, he assured the hall. They must show England that they were not half-hearted, that they would resolutely hold on to the principles for which their martyred compatriots, his son included, had died (cheers).

Accordingly, Plunkett moved for the following resolution:

That we, the assembly of Irish Independence, desire to establish an organisation to unite Irish advanced opinion and provide for action, as the result of its conclusions.

The Convention secretary was at hand to second it. The resolution for a new organisation was declared carried, but the accompanying cries of ‘no, no’ from the hall indicated that this was not a unanimous, or even popular, decision. The tension gestating beneath the surface, away from public sight since the Roscommon election two months ago, was finally rising to the surface, ready to ooze out.[24]

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

 

References

[1] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 218-9 ; Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8543

[2] Brennan, Robert (BMH / WS 779), p. 10

[3] Irish Times, 04/08/1916, 11/09/1916 ; O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part IV) pp. 144-5

[4] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 257

[5] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 146-7

[6] Plunkett Dillon, p. 257

[7] Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?]), p. 98

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 118

[9] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 395 ; McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

[10] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1776), p. 101

[11] Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 392), pp. 5-6

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 68-9

[13] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 222, 226

[14] Ibid, p. 230, 313 ; Nugent, pp. 44, 271-2

[15] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 194

[16] McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (accessed 08/01/2017)

[17] Plunkett Dillon, p. 195

[18] Good, p. 6

[19] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go, p. 144

[20] O’Shiel, pp. 9-11

[21] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), p. 37

[22] Dillon, p. 395

[23] Dore, p. 8

[24] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

 

Bibliography

Newspaper

Freeman’s Journal

 

Books

Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])

O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

 

Bureau of Military Statements

Brennan, Robert, WS 779

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

 

Articles

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (Accessed 08/01/2017)

 

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

A Prominent Republican Leader: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1913-1919 (Part I)

Who?

The Robert Emmet Commemoration Concert was announced for the 4th March 1919, to be held in the Mansion House, Dublin. Posters advertised the event with the promise of a special – but unnamed – star attraction:

AN ADDRESS WILL BE GIVEN BY

A PROMINENT REPUBLICAN LEADER.

WHO?

The concert organisers played their cards close to their chests, letting only a select few know the identity of the mystery guest. After the first part of the performance, it was announced by Diarmuid O’Hegarty that the promised oration was about to commence in the Round Room, to be presided over by Seán Ó Muirthile.

That both O’Hegarty and Ó Muirthile were high-ranking members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret society dedicated to freedom for Ireland, was no coincidence. This was to be more than a celebration of a long-dead patriot but a defiant clenching of the fist by living ones.

Even if unaware of all this, the guests could not have failed to note the presence of the Irish Volunteers, acting as stewards for the event. Some of them had been ordered to carry revolvers, although presumably not openly, this being an event to enjoy, after all.

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Round Room, Mansion House, 1975

As the advertised ‘prominent Republican leader’ prepared to make his entrance, Volunteers took up duty by the doors. One of them, Michael Lynch, remembered the anticipation:

One could feel the air of expectancy in the vast audience. From the supper-room, at the rere [sic] of the round room, came the sound of a pipers’ band tuning up. After a few minutes, the doors of the supper-room were thrown open and the pipers’ band came in, making a most infernal noise.[1]

In the middle of the band, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, was Seán McGarry. As soon as he was recognised, the crowd broke out into a rapturous outburst of cheers, clapping and whistling loud enough to drown out the ‘infernal noise’ of the band. For who could fail to appreciate the pluck and daring of the man who had, along with others, broken out of an English jail a mere month and a day ago?

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Seán McGarry, police mugshot

Ability, Tact and Discretion

McGarry walked on stage “rather shyly,” according to Lynch, understandably so, given the attention being heaped on him. Sharing the platform was Ó Muirthile and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, bedecked in his chain of office. There the three of them stood for many minutes until the cheering had died down enough for Ó Muirthile to begin.

He introduced McGarry – rather unnecessarily by this point – and said that if the true story of his escape was told, it would shatter all the ones they had been reading in the newspapers.

“At any rate,” Ó Muirthile continued, “he is here, and he has not been brought here by any of the methods that have been described in the Press for the past few days. He is here, owing in the ability, tact, and discretion of the men who are leading the Irish Republican Army.”

Then it was the turn of the Lord Mayor. He stood before them, he said, in the full adornment of his office to honour this latest fugitive from British injustice. He was there because a solemn and imperative duty demanded him to be there, first to tender a hearty welcome to his colleague, Councillor Seán McGarry, to the Mansion House.

And he was there to show his utter contempt, a contempt which was shared in every liberty-loving man and woman the whole world over, for a Government which detained in English jails so many of his fellow countrymen without any trial, without any charge, at the expense of the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and fair play.

(O’Neill was far less amenable when he wrote about the event several years later. He had worn his chain of office in honour of Robert Emmet, not McGarry whose appearance had been sprung on him at the last second. A consummate professional, O’Neill had nonetheless carried on with the show.)

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Laurence O’Neill (centre) between Éamon de Valera (left) and Michael Collins (right)

Homecoming

Now it was finally time for McGarry to deliver his much hyped oration. What it was, Lynch could not recall, not that it mattered much. It was enough for McGarry to have appeared in public and give lie to the claims of the British Government that not one of its former prisoners had made it back to Ireland.

Whatever McGarry said, it was received with “great enthusiasm,” according to the Irish Times. The Irish Independent said even less, reporting in detail on Ó Muirthile’s and O’Neill’s words but nothing about McGarry speaking at all. For all the stir he caused, McGarry emerged from his own performance as little more than a prop for a piece of theatre.

But then, perhaps as Lynch suggested, it did not matter all that much in the end.

The Volunteers on the doors were ordered to bar everyone from leaving or using the phones while the speeches were going on. Trust was evidently a limited commodity. The Lord Mayor was among those blocked but made light of the inconvenience, quipping that he could not move in his own house.

As soon as McGarry was done, he was whisked out of the building by an escort of Volunteers and taken to Molesworth Street where a car was waiting, not to mention a large force of policemen and detectives, no doubt alerted by the gathering nearby. Nonetheless, perhaps deterred by the bodyguards, the police did not interfere as McGarry was taken to the car and driven away. The Volunteers returned to the concert which, by all accounts, continued to be a great success.[2]  

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Mansion House, 1921

The Men Behind the Man

Seán McGarry was no newcomer to Irish Republicanism. Born in 1886, in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, the son of a letter carrier, he worked as an electrician while a key operative in the planning of the Howth gunrunning and then later the Easter Rising.

Unfortunately, he wrote no memoir and gave little about himself in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement (leaving it to others to tease out some details on his activities), preferring instead to focus on his mentor within the IRB, Tom Clarke.

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Tom Clarke

McGarry first met the veteran Fenian in 1907 shortly after the latter’s return to Ireland. He was to provide no details on the circumstances – as if the years spent in the shadows and silences of a secret society had sapped his ability to be too forthcoming – only that he had been expecting a venerable elder, aged by many years in prison but finding instead one with the demeanour and enthusiasm of someone much younger. McGarry quickly became one of Clarke’s staunchest followers, a “right-hand man” in the words of another IRB member.[3]

Another IRB organiser to whom McGarry was close was Seán Mac Diarmada. They had known each other since 1906-7 when they had belonged to the Dungannon Club in Belfast, one of the few times McGarry ventured out of the Dublin orbit.[4]

sean-macdiarmada
Seán Mac Diarmada

In general, McGarry served as a go-between and emissary. The future Chief Justice of Ireland, Tim Sullivan, received a visit from McGarry in 1915 while the former was working as a barrister. McGarry had been sent by Mac Diarmada on behalf of a Volunteer arrested for illegal possession of arms and explosives.

As instructed, McGarry offered Sullivan a hundred guineas on his brief. Sullivan stared hard at his visitor, saying: “In my opinion, you boys are Fenians.”

True to his membership of a secret society, McGarry said nothing. Correctly taking the silence as an assent, Sullivan then agreed to take on the case, waiving aside his usual fee (the defendant was later acquitted).[5]

A Day Out in Howth

On the 25th July 1914, a message was sent to several IRB initiates (who doubled as Irish Volunteers) to meet McGarry that day at Nelson’s Pillar. None of the four men who came knew what was to be expected of them but waited all the same until McGarry arrived. When the others inquired further, he politely told them to mind their own business.

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Nelson’s Column

The group drove to Amiens Street Station where McGarry purchased five tickets for Howth. They arrived in the harbour at 4 pm, where McGarry told them to go to the end of the East Pier while he waited by the station. The four others did so, and McGarry later rejoined then at the Pier, accompanied by a middle-aged fisherman in a blue jersey and a peaked cap.

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Howth Harbour

The hoary sea dog bluntly told them that their request to do a spot of fishing was impossible given the rough weather. After some arguing on the matter, McGarry walked away with the fisherman, still arguing, but it seems to have been resolved when McGarry returned to the others after a short while. If he could get a boat, he asked them, would they be willing to venture out on it – a reasonable question as it was raining hard with high winds and rough waters.

Undeterred, the men voiced their assent. McGarry finally told them what was going on – they were to go out and make contact with a boat laden with weapons. This came as no huge surprise as the men had been hearing rumours about the importation of guns for some months now.

‘A Beautiful Sight’

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Darrell Figgis

McGarry then left again after telling them to stay put until further instructions. Two hours later, the men were surprised to see Darrell Figgis, the writer (and, unknown to them, one of the chief organisers of the gunrunning), coming down the pier with the same fisherman as before, the pair of them walking up and down the boards in a fresh argument.

McGarry arrived back on the scene, accompanied by Clarke, in time to join in the argument with Figgis and the stubborn fisherman. Finally, McGarry told the waiting team to remain where they were on the pier while he attempted to make alternative arrangements for a boat, possibly from Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) on the other side of the bay. The fisherman was apparently not to be moved.

The four men remained by the sea, depressed at the seemingly wasted day. A messenger came on a bicycle at 9 pm, five hours after they had arrived, only to tell them to keep waiting. The last tram and train had left Howth for the night by the time a second cyclist arrived to inform them they could return to the city but to stick together. Soaked to the skin from the rain, the men trudged back inland.[6]

McGarry drove with Figgis to Kingstown, hoping to catch the yacht, Asgard, loaded with the promised armaments from there. They sighted the vessel over the water but, lacking anyone like they had in Howth, the pair had no choice but to finally retire, weary and disheartened, to the Marine Hotel at 4 am for a few hours of sleep.

b-and-w-yacht
Asgard

Returning to Howth on the first train that morning, McGarry and Figgis met a second team from Bray, which were posted at the base of the north pier. By 9:30 am the Asgard could be seen on the far side of Lambay Island but, as it approached the pier, there was no sign of any other Volunteers to assist. It was only when the yacht drew next to the pier-head that Figgis heard McGarry beside him say: “Here they are; look at them, aren’t they a beautiful sight.”

A column of Volunteers were marching towards them, including the four who had been with McGarry in Howth the day before. All were ready and eager to assist in the unloading of the arms in what would become known to history as the Howth gunrunning. It had been touch-and-go, but the efforts of McGarry, Clarke, Figgis and the Irish Volunteers had finally paid off.[7]

howth-gun-running
Irish Volunteers at the Howth gunruning, 26th July 1914

Meeting Connolly

McGarry was among those assembled in the library of the Gaelic League headquarters in Parnell Square in September 1914 when Clarke and MacDermott announced their intentions of starting an armed uprising at an opportune time. Also present were James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Seán T. O’Kelly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Mac Donagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, many of whom would help spearhead the Rising. Given how close McGarry was to both Clarke and Mac Diarmada, the news could hardly have come as a surprise to him.[8]

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James Connolly

Sometimes afterwards, McGarry called on Liberty Hall, the ostensible reason to ask Connolly for an article on the Irish Citizen Army (presumably for the Irish Freedom, the IRB organ that he and Mac Diarmada worked on). The two had been on friendly terms for a number of years, McGarry having given Connolly a weekly article during the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in a gesture of solidary.

As McGarry was editor of the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral souvenir booklet (in addition to the other hats he wore in service to the cause), the topic of conversation turned to that of the deceased Fenian.

“What’s the good of talking about Rossa?” Connolly asked, according to McGarry’s recollections in his BHM Statement. “Rossa wanted to fight England when England was at peace. You fellows want to fight when she is at war.”

When McGarry finally departed from Liberty Hall, it was with a promise from Connolly that the latter would provide the sought-after article. In return, McGarry would talk with him further. After McGarry had passed onto Clarke what he and Connolly had talked about, Clarke paid Liberty Hall a visit of his own. Shortly afterwards Connolly became the newest member of their budding cell. Although McGarry did not say no explicitly in his BMH Statement, it is clear that he was used to ‘feel out’ Connolly, who was at that point an outsider to the planning and an unknown factor needing to be brought into the fold.[9]

McGarry would later publicly describe Connolly as “the man who…taught me to be a Republican.” Republicanism from a different angle, perhaps, but Republicanism all the same. In private, however, he remembered Connolly as a man of great courage and intelligence but also one who was headstrong, naïve and easily manipulated by the far wilier Clarke. For all his extravagant praise of the socialist, it was the Fenian who truly taught McGarry how to be a Republican.[10]

irish_citizen_army_group_liberty_hall_dublin_1914
Liberty Hall

Bumps on the Road

Preparations for an uprising continued, although not always smoothly. “It’s all right, Tom, it’s not loaded,” McGarry told Clarke as he playfully pointed a pistol at him, near the end of January 1916.

Both men were given an impromptu lesson in firearms safety when the supposedly safe gun went off and hit Clarke in the elbow. The bullet was surreptitiously removed, along with stray bone fragments, at the Mater Hospital the next morning. Clarke never recovered full use of his wounded right arm, forcing him to learn how to use a revolver with his left hand in time for the Rising in April, though he was magnanimous enough not to hold it against McGarry.[11]

On a more positive note, Mac Diarmada visited McGarry in a jolly mood on the 19th April, five days before the start, telling him that Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers and reluctant ally to the IRB, had “agreed to everything” in regards to the planned uprising.[12]

MacNeill, however, would turn out to be not as agreeable as believed.

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Eoin MacNeill

McGarry was making his way back home from Mass on the morning of the 23rd, having stayed the night with Clarke, when he read in the press MacNeill’s orders to cancel the planned rising. McGarry walked home in a daze to find Michael Collins, having come over for breakfast. The two ate in dumbstruck silence after McGarry showed Collins the newspaper, and then they left for Liberty Hall where the IRB Military Council was struggling to comprehend the new development.

McGarry found Clarke who, for the first time since he had known him, appeared tired and crestfallen. The two walked in silence to Clarke’s home where the older man was recovered enough to lambaste MacNeill’s actions as the vilest of treacheries. When it came to addressing the subject for his BMH Statement, McGarry preferred to adopt a tone of dignified, if somewhat disdainful silence:

I do not propose to go into the pros and cons of the matter. Reams of paper have been covered with mostly ill-informed statements and speculations and other reams are I am told written for later publications. And so I leave it.[13]

Such pros and cons, statements and speculations, were to be merely academic. Countermanding orders or no, the Rising was going ahead. Clarke was sure on that, and McGarry would be at his side for it as always.

Easter Monday

James Rowan, a 15-year old telegraph messenger, was idling away time in the delivery room of the General Post Office (GPO) on the morning of the 24th April when the policeman on duty came in, wanting to use the phones there to contact his superiors, having just been disarmed by Irish Volunteers.

The phones were found to be out of order. Looking out of the rear window of the delivery room, Rowan and the other staff saw the rest of their colleagues and some British soldiers, also disarmed, being marshalled out into the yard. The delivery room occupants stayed where they were but when they heard a rousing cheer, the Inspector in charge risked opening the door for a peek outside.

“Quick, look at what these fellows are doing,” the Inspector called to the rest. Rowan joined him to see a cab had pulled up outside in Princes Street North, next to the GPO. Volunteers were hard at work, either smashing the windows of buildings with the butts of their rifles or lifting boxes of ammunition from the cab to hand to their comrades through the broken windows.

A stern voice demanded that the Inspector hand over his keys. The speaker emerged from the blind side of the door, holding a revolver, and Rowan saw a glimpse of a face with horn-rimmed glasses before he retreated back inside:

That face was photographed in my mind…The demander of the keys I recognised after the Rebellion from photographs in the papers giving particulars of those who had been arrested and identified as being prominently associated with the movement. He was Sean McGarry, who may be able to confirm the account of this incident.

The Inspector wisely complied and threw his keys onto the footpath. The door was slammed shut, locking the occupants in before they were released by the Volunteers later that afternoon.[14]

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General Post Office (GPO)

Culmination

McGarry left the GPO on Monday evening to take command of the Radio Transmitting Station in Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. He returned in time to lead a hunt for supplies on a jewellery store at the corner of Abbey Street (three pairs of binoculars and some watches were found and taken).[15]

For the most part, however, McGarry remained in the post office with Clarke. He was to provide his BMH Statement with little about his activities during the fighting, pleading poor memory:

I have little to say about Easter Week. I have a very clear recollection of all that happened within my observation but after Tuesday I cannot for the life of me separate the days.[16]

Nonetheless, he remembered enough to take the time in his BMH Statement to correct a passage in Frank O’Connor’s biography, The Big Fellow, about Clarke losing his cool under pressure. McGarry insisted that Clarke had remained resolute and determined (evidently a well-read man, McGarry also took the Breton writer Louis le Roux to task for some unflattering remarks in the latter’s book on Clarke).[17]

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Fighting during the Easter Rising, 1916

On Thursday, the 27th, McGarry was part of a team sent over to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on the other side of Princes Street North from the GPO. While crossing the street, the party came under fire, with McGarry narrowly avoiding becoming a casualty. Having arrived unscathed, the men broke through the walls of the office to the neighbouring building. The need for an escape route was rapidly becoming an acute one but when the GPO was evacuated the next day, it was in the opposite direction, to Moore Street.[18]

McGarry was one of the last to leave the post office, ensuring that the building was clear as per Clarke’s orders. He had already eaten a last meal of mutton chops with Clarke, Mac Diarmada and several others. The mood was a resolutely jolly one, McGarry jokingly asking if he would go to Hell for eating meat on this particular Friday.

After the withdrawal, it took a while for McGarry to find Clarke again in Moore Street. Clarke and MacDermott were discussing the possibility of surrender, the former dolefully quiet, the latter close to tears.

McGarry felt too drained to contribute a word to the discussion. Only recently he had been weighing up the odds with a wounded and bedridden Connolly for a successful counterattack on British-held barricades, and now it had come to this. While the negotiations to surrender were on, Clarke, seconded by Mac Diarmada, gave permission for the rest to escape. Though McGarry passed this on to others, he remained where he was, committed to the cause and the event he had helped set in motion.[19]

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Aftermath of the Rising

After the Rising

After the surrender, McGarry was led away by British soldiers to Richmond Barracks along with Clarke and others. En route, Clarke was able to pass on a hastily scribbled note to his wife, via an obliging British soldier. The letter expressed his pride in the Rising and the men who had helped him carry it out: “Sean [Mac Diarmada] is with me and McG [McGarry] – They are all heroes.”[20]

Upon reaching the barracks, McGarry was observed being picked out by police officers along with the other leaders such as Clarke, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Mac Diarmada in a backhanded tribute to his importance.[21]

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Richmond Barracks

As Prisoner #28, McGarry was court-martialled in a batch of four that included Willie Pearse. All but Pearse pleaded not guilty. McGarry’s defence that he had known nothing about anything until the occupation of the GPO, after which he had been only a messenger with no position or rank of any kind, belied his true role behind the scenes.

His defence must have been convincing. Though all four prisoners were found ‘Guilty. Death’, McGarry was singled out for a recommendation of mercy on the grounds that he had been “misled by the leaders” of the Rising. He was sentenced instead to eight years of penal servitude.[22]

So quickly had the court-martial been held that prisoners were still arriving in Richmond Barracks. There was some astonishment at the extent of the sentence, although it was a far lighter sentence than Clarke’s, who McGarry saw for the last time on the day before his mentor’s execution.[23] 

Continued by: Twenty Years a Republican: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1919-1922 (Part II)

Sources

[1] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 94

[2] Lynch, pp. 94-5 ; Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 49-50 ; Irish Times, Irish Independent 05/03/1919 ; Morrissey., Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014), p. 144

[3] McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368), p. 26 ;  biographical details from White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James) ; Gleeson, Joseph (BMH / WS 367), p. 8

[4] Braniff, Daniel (BMH / WS 222), p. 2

[5] Sullivan, Mrs. T.M. (BMH / WS 653), p. 3

[6] Daly, Seamus (BMH / WS 360), pp. 8-10

[7] Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?]), pp. 45-7

[8] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 156

[9] McGarry, p. 21

[10] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 211. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html ; McGarry, pp. 21-2

[11] Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014), p. 150

[12] McGarry, p. 23

[13] Ibid, p. 24

[14] Rowan, James (BMH / WS 871), pp. 2-3

[15] O’Reilly, Michael William (BMH / WS 886), p. 7 ; Daly, William D. (BMH / WS 291), p. 18

[16] McGarry, p. 24

[17] Ibid, pp. 5-6, 25

[18] Gleeson, p. 10

[19] Ibid, pp. 25-6 ; Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 392), pp. 18-19

[20] Barton, Brian, The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010), p. 155

[21] Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), p. 69

[22] Barton, pp. 180-1 ; Irish Times, 10/12/1958

[23] Cosgrave, Liam T. (BMH / WS 268), p. 8 ; McGarry, p. 26

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Braniff, Daniel, WS 222

Cosgrave, Liam T., 268

Daly, Seamus, WS 360

Daly, William D., WS 291

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Gleeson, Joseph, WS 367

Henderson, Frank, 821

Kelly, Patrick J., WS 781

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGarry, Seán, WS 368

O’Reilly, Michael William, WS 886

Rowan, James, 871

Sullivan, Mrs. T.M., WS 653

 

Books

Barton, Brian. The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010)

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

 Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])

Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)

Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014)

Morrissey, Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)

White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

 

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times