The struggle had been a hard one but at last the three men, Colm Ó Lochlainn, Denis Daly and Sam Windrim, could claim a victory – something otherwise in short supply – when they reached the mountain pass of Bealach Óisín. This was despite the plaintive protests of their car, with its hissing, spluttering engine, which had forced the trio to get out and push the floundering vehicle over the last few yards. For a long while afterwards, all they could do was slump over the bonnet, utterly exhausted, but on the brink of escape from Co. Kerry.
As it was now dark, the three men slept as best they could, huddled together in the rear seat. Though they did not know it yet, Ó Lochlainn and Daly were all that remained of a five-strong team who had left Dublin the day before, on Good Friday 1916, as part of the opening moves in a national upheaval set to happen the following week at Easter.
Not that Ó Lochlainn knew much about it. Despite his place on the Irish Volunteers Executive, and his rank as captain on the staff of Joseph Plunkett, their Director of Intelligence, he had only been told the day before, Holy Thursday, when Plunkett briefed Ó Lochlainn about an operation he was to undertake in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, involving a wireless station near there to be dismantled and removed elsewhere.
Even then, Ó Lochlainn was ignorant as to the whys, until another high-ranking figure in the Irish Volunteers, J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, stopped by later that Thursday at Ó Lochlainn’s house in Dublin, seeking to have some gaps in his own knowledge filled:
I told Ginger where I was going and he informed me he was off the following morning to take charge of the Volunteers of the Kilkenny and Carlow districts. He told me that a rising had been planned to start on Easter Sunday…but at that time he knew very little about what was going to take place, and wanted to know if I knew anything to confirm the rumours in circulation.
Ó Lochlainn did not. Daly knew more, albeit only a little, from attending a series of strategy meetings with Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael Collins, Con Keating and Dan Sheehan:
As I understood it at the time, the main purpose of our mission was to enable wireless contact to be made with a German arms ship (I don’t think name of vessel was mentioned), which was expected at Fenlit on Easter Sunday.
The second objective was apparently to misdirect any Royal Navy warships off the South-West coast, via the wireless messages from the pilfered equipment, away from Tralee Bay where the German vessel in question would land. However “I cannot, from personal knowledge, confirm or deny, that there was such an intention,” Daly later wrote. “It is possible, but I do not recollect any discussion on the matter.”
Years might pass but much about the event that had changed Ireland irrevocably would remain obscured in ignorance, even to its participants.
Daly guessed that if anyone in the team had the dummy codes to send, it would have been Keating, a Kerryman who was to be their wireless operator. He and Daly were selected for the group, along with Ó Lochlainn and Sheehan, who had previously lived in London, where he helped procure rifles to be smuggled over to Ireland. Another conspirator, Joseph O’Rourke, was intended to go as the fifth man but Mac Diarmada decided at the last minute to keep him in Dublin to help coordinate the upcoming revolt and sent Charles Monahan, a Belfast native, in his place.
Who was in charge is uncertain, as both Ó Lochlainn and Daly claimed command in their respective accounts. The two men met for the first time on the Friday morning at the Ballast Office, Westmoreland Street, where they were introduced to each other by Michael Collins, who then handed them their train tickets for the journey.
Ó Lochlainn had come on a bicycle, which he left behind with Collins. When Ó Lochlainn later asked for its return, Collins told him that his bicycle had ended up in a barricade on Abbey Street during Easter Week.
Entering the Kingdom
The team headed down to Killarney by train, with Ó Lochlainn and Daly in one carriage, and Keating, Sheehan and Monahan on another, in order to throw off suspicion. Code words for their arrival had been prepared in advance – “Are you John?” “Yes, William sent me” – but they seemed so obvious that it was agreed not to bother with them.
As it turned out, there were only two cars waiting at Killarney Station – a Maxwell and a Briscoe – and both with Limerick plates, which rendered any code words unnecessary. Keating got into one, while the other four men, for appearance’s sake, walked into town until reaching the College, at which point the cars picked them up.
That is, at least, according to Ó Lochlainn’s version. In Daly’s, the group first had lunch in a pub in Killarney, before going to a road junction outside town at the appointed time:
The cars were there. Both cars were the property of Tommy McInerney of Limerick. He drove himself and the other was driven by a driver of whose name I do not remember. We had never met either man before.
The second wheelman, Sam Windrim, had been drafted in at the last minute when domestic circumstances made it impossible for the intended driver, John Quilty, to participate. Both McInerney and Quilty were Limerick Volunteers but Windrim was a newcomer and so it was deemed necessary for the other two to first take him to the privacy of an upstairs office in Limerick and swear him to secrecy.
Again, Ó Lochlainn and Daly stayed together in the Maxwell, the remaining three in the Briscoe. The former group were driven ahead by Windrim, with the others at their tail, staying close enough to see each other’s lights. “It was never intended that we should separate,” remembered Daly.
Ó Lochlainn watched the hedgerows and stone walls of the Kerry landscape pass by, while the sky deepened into twilight and then night. He also kept a close eye on the Briscoe to the rear, though not closely enough, because, after three miles out of Killorglin town, he realised that he could no longer see the headlights. The other car was gone.
They doubled back to search, straining their eyes through the gloom, to no avail. They stopped and waited, hoping that it was just a case of engine trouble or a flat tyre, and that their comrades would reappear at any moment but, as an hour passed, that no longer seemed feasible. Deciding that their mission took precedence, Ó Lochlainn, Daly and Windrim pressed on to Cahersiveen, only to be stopped on the road by a whistle-blast from ahead.
Two figures stepped into the headlights, showing themselves to be a sergeant and a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Ó Lochlainn instinctively reached for the revolver he had borrowed from Plunkett.
Escape from Kerry
“Will we shoot?” asked Daly.
“No,” Ó Lochlainn replied. “I let someone else start the war. Talk will do for these fellows.”
Ó Lochlainn’s instincts proved correct. The three passengers explained that they were medical students to the RIC pair, who proceeded to give the car the briefest of searches. When they found a box and a bag, the explanation that the first held boots and the other clothes was enough to dissuade the policemen from peering inside.
In truth, the trio were equally ignorant of the contents, and it was only after the RIC men waved them through that they had a look for themselves. What they found was enough to startle Ó Lochlainn:
Oh! sergeant; that box contained two jemmies, a keyhole saw and a few other trinkets. The bag held an assorted collection of electrical appliances, two hatches and a heavy hammer.
Had the police been more thorough, the ‘medical students’ would have had a hard time explaining why their profession required these particular items. As it were:
Over the edge went the lot, owners having no further use for same. The job was off – a few words let drop by the sergeant had let out that a platoon of soldiers had come…and that all police units were on patrol.
Ó Lochlainn and Daly agreed that the only thing to do was leave Kerry, since neither of them had the necessary technical knowledge to dismantle and rearrange the wireless set as intended. That responsibility would have lain with Keating and possibly Sheehan, and they were MIA with Monahan. Given the agitated state of the authorities, it was surmised that the second car had been stopped back in Killorglin and its occupants arrested.
The only route out of the Kingdom ran through the narrow pass at Bealach Óisín, and to there they went, or at least tried to, for both the hilly terrain and their car fought them every inch of the way. For an hour they struggled uphill in the dark, much to the perturbation of their vehicle:
She was slipping and spitting and racing and faltering and stumbling and once she got one hind wheel into a gull and nearly turned over, and then we pushed and heaved and slipped and swore and called on the Lord and groaned and grunted until we arrived at last where the story begins.
But, for them, it was the end. The car almost made it to Killarny, before breaking down for good. Ó Lochlainn and Daly left Windrim with his defeated Maxwell, and walked to the train station in time to catch the morning ride back to Dublin. While changing carriages at Mallow, Co. Cork, they received word that there had been arrests made in Kerry.
But not of Keating, Sheehan or Monahan. Ó Lochlainn only learnt of their fate a month later when he chanced upon a newspaper article. It had been reported earlier, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April but, given the brief attention the story received in the Irish Times, a reader could be forgiven for overlooking it:
THREE MEN DROWNED IN KERRY – MOTOR CAR JUMPS INTO A RIVER
Three men, whose names are unknown, were drowned in the River Laune, near Killorglin, Thursday night. They were motoring towards Tralee and, taking the wrong turn, the car went over the quay wall, and the three men were drowned. The chauffeur escaped. Two of the bodies were recovered last evening.
That the newspaper incorrectly dated the incident to Thursday and not the Friday shows how little was known at the time. John Quilty, in whose car the drowned men had been, heard that McInerney, the driver and sole survivor, had lost his way and asked for directions from a young girl on the roadside.
“First turn on your right,” she said, the direction leading an oblivious McInerney, driving almost blindly in the dark, down a cul-de-sac to Ballykissane Pier, over which they plunged.
Sheehan and Monahan went down with the Briscoe, but, as McInerney later told Quilty, he and Keating managed to pull free and swam together in the cold waters, shouting for help until a light appeared to guide them to shore.
Keating never made it, suddenly disappearing beneath the surface with a cry of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. McInerney pressed on until he reached dry land, where he was assisted by Patrick Begley, a schoolteacher who, as luck would finally have it, possessed enough Fenian feeling to hide McInerney’s gun before the RIC could find it on him.
Supplied with a policeman’s uniform in place of his wet clothes, McInerney fenced with the questions posed to him, insisting to the RIC that he knew nothing about the other men and had only been hired to drive them to Cahersiveen. When Windrim – after seeing Ó Lochlainn and Daly off out of Kerry – and Quilty, whose number plate was on the salvaged Briscoe, were picked up in turn by the authorities, they too kept schtum, insisting on only the most innocent of motives for all involved.
Coming to a Halt
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the newspapers, a second report concerning a most unusual occurrence in Kerry was published by the Press Bureau on that same day of Easter Monday:
The Secretary of the Admiralty announces – During the period between p.m. April 20 and p.m. April 21 an attempt to land arms and ammunition in Ireland was made by a vessel under the guise of a neutral merchant ship, but in reality a German auxiliary…The auxiliary sank and a number of prisoners was made.
It was but one mishap that slowly but surely unravelled the plans for the Rising.
Captain Jeremiah O’Connell had assembled ten Kerrymen from his Cahersiveen Company on Easter Sunday, the most he could find on short notice. As it was he who had dispatched Keating to Dublin to answer a request for a man trained as a wireless operator, he was more in the loop than most.
He had also been told to find a pilot for the boat that was to escort their German visitors to shore when they arrived, at which point O’Connell would lead his squad to Tralee by bicycle and capture the barracks, railway station and post office. The Cahersiveen Volunteers were on their way to do just that when, upon reaching Killorglin, they learnt of the tragedy at Ballykissane. The earthly remains of their fellow Kerryman, Keating, was already lying in the courthouse.
Continuing on to Tralee, they next discovered that things had gone from bad to worse: not only had the German vessel been captured but fresh orders from Eoin MacNeill, their Chief of Staff, had come through to call off the whole venture, with the would-be rebels ordered back to their homes. There was nothing left for O’Connell and his subordinates to do but just that.
As it happened, even if the five men had succeeded in obtaining the wireless radios, the mission of the German ship – the Aud – could still have only ended in defeat. Messages transmitted to New York were to have been received by sympathetic Irish-Americans and then forwarded to the German embassy to ensure that the Aud appeared off the Kerry coast at the assigned time and with knowledge of the signals to give and receive from the shore.
For Want of a Nail…
Such an intervention from a friendly power could tip the odds decisively in favour of the Rising. When Patrick McCartan, whose role was to help facilitate these trans-Atlantic communications, met one of his co-conspirators, Tom Clarke, in Dublin, he found that:
Tom was enthusiastic about the prospect. He said there were at least 5,000 Germans coming and he was all enthusiastic about how thorough the Germans were and that they would do things in a big way, so that I left him for the first train next morning as enthusiastic as himself.
As it turned out, the rebels had severely overestimated their ‘gallant allies in Europe’. No one seemed to have realised that the Aud, already on course for Ireland:
…had no wireless. They acted on the assumption that the Germans were so thorough and perfect in all their arrangements that there would have been a means of communicating with the Aud.
The result was that the ship arrived on the Thursday, the 20th April, three days earlier than the expected Sunday, with no one present to receive them with signals or pilot-boats. The crew waited in the waters of Tralee Bay for twenty hours before passing warships in the Royal Navy grew suspicious and intercepted the Aud as it tried to escape to the high seas.
Its cargo of 20,000 rifles fell short of the 5,000 soldiers Clarke had been anticipating but the loss was still sufficient enough for MacNeill – already skittish about their chances – to conclude that insurgency was no longer practical. With that decision came the cancellation orders that Jeremiah O’Connell and other Irish Volunteers all over the country received in time to stop them in their tracks on Easter Sunday.
Though the Rising would go ahead the next day regardless, it did so in a piecemeal manner, limited to the capital and a handful of other areas, and did not last the week.
Small wonder, then, that when Frank Henderson, one of the participants-to-be in Easter Week, was reading the evening papers about the mishaps in Kerry, he had the sinking feeling “that we were going to have a repetition of all the previous insurrections.”
Rarely had a wrong turn led to so many woes.
The Living and the Dead
There was a slightly eerie postscript to the episode. Alf Monahan had been in Galway during the Easter Rising, one of the few areas that did see action. When the rebels decided on the Saturday that further resistance was useless, Monahan accompanied Liam Mellows and Frank Hynes, the Galway commander and a company captain respectively, in going on the run, through the Galway wilderness and into Clare, where they were sheltered by the local Volunteers in a tiny, hillside cottage.
When provided with newspapers, the trio were able to catch up with events, from the heavy fighting in Dublin to the executions afterwards, including the drowning in Kerry. As only two names – Keating and Sheehan – were given, Alf Monahn did not know at first that the third victim was his brother, Charles.
They stayed in the cottage until Mellows left for America on the orders of the new revolutionary leadership, after which Hynes was taken to Tipperary. When Monahan’s turn came near Christmas, he believed that the car that drove him away to safety was the same vehicle in which his brother had drowned eight months ago, with even the same chauffeur at the wheel, Tommy McInerney.
In this, Alf was mistaken, for it was the Maxwell car he was in, while Charles had taken his last ride that fateful night in the Briscoe. All the same, it must have made for an uncomfortable journey.
Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,
I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,
I let you in, I held you close,
My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.
(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)
It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.
While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.
A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.
After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:
That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.
An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.
Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.
But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.
As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.
The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.
“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”
From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.
Upon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”
These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.
An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.
Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.
Too cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.
Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.
Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.
Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.
If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.
The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.
De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.
Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.
But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”
But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.
Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.
Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.
An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.
Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:
In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.
On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.
Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.
Stranger in a Strange Land
So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.
The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:
Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’
In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.
“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”
Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:
I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.
Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.
Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.
These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.
“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”
Not an Easy Job
When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”
In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.
The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.
It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.
It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”
Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:
…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.
Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.
Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:
Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.
Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”
Truce and Tension
Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”
Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”
As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.
Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.
The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”
Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”
He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”
With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”
As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”
A Crooked Correspondence
It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”
Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”
It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”
Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:
…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].
As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:
…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’
O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:
As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.
Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.
‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’
Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:
Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.
So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.
Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”
Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.
“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.
It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.
But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”
A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.
“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.
Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.
But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”
This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.
Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.
‘Confusion and Alarm’
If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.
Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.
“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”
Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.
With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.
“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”
Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”
The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.
An Existing Peace
Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:
We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.
Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.
Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:
Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.
So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.
Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”
‘Seizing Every Advantage’
The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:
…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.
The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.
Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.
The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.
After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.
Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.
What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?
O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.
Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:
Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.
To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.
Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:
Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.
O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:
A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.
Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.
For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.
The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.
“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”
O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.
Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.
“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:
Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.
As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.
O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:
[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.
To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.
“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”
Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.
O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”
When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.
While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”
Slaying a man in the heat of battle was one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”
 Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8
 O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
‘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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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!”
‘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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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. 
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:
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.
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].”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.
Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.
On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.
When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.
The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.
This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.
Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.
“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.
Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?
As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.
A Soldier’s Heart
If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.
All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:
But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.
The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.
Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.
Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.
Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.
Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.
In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”
Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:
[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.
As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.
The Scottish Connection
Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.
When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:
He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.
No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.
By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.
Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.
Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.
Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.
With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.
The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.
Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.
An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.
Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:
Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.
He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.
Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.
But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.
It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.
Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.
She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.
Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.
Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.
The Landing in Waterford
As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.
This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.
The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.
Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.
White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness would lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.
McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.
White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.
McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.
Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.
Like Stars of Constancy
Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:
The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.
As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.
Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.
Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.
Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.
Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:
Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.
Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.
Letting the Situation Develop
Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.
Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance: a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.
Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.
As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”
He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.
Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.
The Fear of the People
Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:
I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.
To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”
Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”
The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:
The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –
“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.
“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”
Peace with Honour
It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”
For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.
Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:
Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.
As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:
…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.
And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.
It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.
Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.
A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.
Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his audience could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”
Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.
The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.
When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.
“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”
This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.
What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.
Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.
The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.
O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:
…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.
Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.
The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.
But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.
“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”
It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.
Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.
Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.
As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.
“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”
The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.
In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.
The Straight Road to the Republic
The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:
Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.
Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.
It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.
O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.
This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.
For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.
He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price. Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.
When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.
In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.
Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?
Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.
“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”
But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.
“Then there must be a civil war.”
“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”
They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.
A Lot of Sick People
Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”
As Lawless recalled:
I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.
Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:
I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.
Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.
Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?
Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:
A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”
The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.
Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.
A Last Meeting
Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.
After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.
“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”
“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”
“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”
If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”
To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.
When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.
That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.
 Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45
 O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3
 ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, pp.227-31
McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)
Bureau of Military History Statements
Daly, Una, WS 610
Dore, Eamon T., WS 515
Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043
Moylan, Seán, WS 838
Noyk, Michael, WS 707
Reader, Seamus, WS 933
White, Vincent, WS 1764
Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624
‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html
NEWTOWNCUNNINGHAM HORROR – IRA PARTY AMBUSHED – DEADLY FIRE BY MUTINEERS – 3 KILLED; 5 WOUNDED…
…FATAL CONFLICT IN BUNCRANA – MUTINEERS RAID A BANK – FIERCE FIGHT IN STREET – LITTLE GIRL DIES OF WOUNDS…
…SPECIALS’ POST ATTACKED – FIGHT NEAR DERRY…
…A FARM COMMANDEERED.
The multiple incidents throughout the morning of the 4th May 1922, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries in Co. Donegal, did not appear at first glance to be connected. That they were stand-alone events, independent of each other, would have been a reasonable assumption, given that these were merely a fraction of the total number of violent outbreaks that had occurred throughout Ireland in recent times.
For that week alone, the Derry Journal reported scenes in Dublin, Belfast, Kilkenny, Derry, Tyrone and Mullingar. Those Ulster-based acts were due to sectarian hatreds, always simmering beneath the surface of Northern life. As for those elsewhere, more secular passions were to blame as tensions between the two rival factions within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that had been brewing since the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922 boiled over.
The four headlines above, however, differed from the others in that they had been born out of an attempt to solve both problems, burying the IRA divide by intervening together in Ulster. To the men involved, their efforts had sprung from the highest of motives and most pragmatic considerations, even as they backfired spectacularly and murderously.
“A Veritable Tornado”
The Newtowncunningham incident was to receive particular attention in the weeks ahead, being subjected to the worst possible interpretations from one side and counter-accusations by the other. What did seem clear, at least, was that a motorised convoy of pro-Treaty IRA men in three Crossley lorries had driven into Newtowncunningham village, Co. Donegal, to find the walls on either side of the street lined by their opposing counterparts in the anti-Treaty IRA.
For reasons that were to be hotly debated, this encounter erupted in a gunfight, in which the Pro-Treatyites received the worst of it. One of them was killed outright in the opening fusillade, with another six injured, three seriously. The convoy sped out of the village and took its casualties to a farmhouse. From there they were able to telephone for medical help from Derry.
The doctor who responded to the call arrived minutes before two of the wounded expired, leaving him to dress the wounds of the remaining three as best he could. The sixth casualty was unavailable for treatment, having been left behind in Newtowncunningham and, presumably, now a prisoner.
The engagement lasted no more than three minutes, yet had been savage in its intensity, with one survivor describing it as a “veritable tornado.” That it was an ambush, as initially reported, would be among the details disputed.
“Amongst the ambushers was identified the leader of the party who raided the Bank in Buncrana early in the day,” added the Derry Journal, the first hint at a connection between these seemingly disparate events.
The bitter irony was that it had been to stop such fratricidal conflict that the Anti-Treatyites had been there in the first place. In the spring of 1922, a series of meetings took place between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch, the generalissimos of the pro and anti-Treaty IRA wings respectively, with a number of their close aides attending.
A lot had changed and much remained the same. In the previous year, Ireland had been a country at war between the Irish Republican forces and the British military. Now, the only areas where Crown forces remained were Dublin – from where they were due to be transferred back to Britain – and the North-East corner of the island, long a flashpoint for trouble. The Truce of July 1921 allowed the rest of Ireland to at last breathe more easily but, in the Six Counties of Ulster, violence remained a fact of life:
While the memorable truce was generally honoured in the South of Ir[eland], it will be recalled that there was no attempt made to recognise a similar situation in the North, and more specifically in the present Six Counties, Eastern Donegal and other areas close to the present border.
The Crown Forces – Tans, Ulster Special Police, etc., whether they were supposed to honour their truce or not still backed up the loyal minority of present Ulster in directing their programme in Belfast and their general reign of terror in amongst the Nationalists elsewhere.
In the face of such provocation and desperate to do something:
The General Council of the IRA decided to recognise no truce situation in the North, and ideas were exchanged as to what remedy could be applied to meet the pressure on the Northern Nationalists.
So wrote Seán Lehane years later, in March 1935, in his letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane had been among those chosen to be part of the said remedy: the agreement between Lynch and Collins to send assistance up to their beleaguered Northern compatriots in the form of men drawn from the anti-Treaty party.
A Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, Lehane was appointed the O/C of the new force. He would in turn report to Frank Aiken, the Armagh-based IRA leader, though in practice the Southerners would be acting on their own. Aiken had held himself aloof from the Treaty divisions, careful to maintain a guarded neutrality, and was thus an ideal compromise choice for Lynch and Collins.
Lehane’s instructions, as told to him by Lynch, were “to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].”
That last part was a hint that the two IRA factions were not being entirely forthright with each other. The Pro-Treatyites, after all, were intending to only fight the British where they still were, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. In contrast, such a policy reversal would suit the Anti-Treatyites perfectly, breaking the peace as it would and putting an end to what they saw as an unacceptable compromise.
As Florence O’Donoghue, one of Lynch’s confidants (who may have attended the meetings with Collins), put it:
Liam [Lynch]’s view was that, apart from the Army’s plain duty to defend our people in the North, vigorous development of activity against the Crown forces there, if supported by pro-Treaty leaders and pro-Treaty Army element in the counties along the border, would be regarded by the British as a breach of the Treaty, and would create a situation in which a re-united Army would again confront the common enemy.
Which was the last thing Collins wanted. But O’Donoghue was a romantic at heart, and painted the secret pact between Lynch and Collins accordingly:
For both of them – and it was very evident there was in this project a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.
Such regards did not cancel out the need for discretion. For his part, Collins would contribute weapons to the venture, donated by the Pro-Treatyites to the IRA units which fell under Lynch’s direct command, and then sent up North. The Anti-Treatyites would be recompensed with weapons that had been first given to the Pro-Treatyites by their new-found British partners, who were presumably unaware as to where their gifts were earmarked.
That way, any guns that came to Britain’s attention would not be traced back to Collins, still engaged as he was in negotiations with Westminster on the implementations of the Treaty. It was a skilful meld of subterfuge and politicking, but such secrecy also ensured that the right Irish hand remained unaware what the left was doing. In time, this would prove disastrous.
Still, things proceeded smoothly at first. One morning in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw a flotilla of small vans pass by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust from the roads. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now carried a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.
Even in the heart of the anti-Treaty command, the Four Courts in Dublin, this mystery was maintained. While performing clerical duties there as part of its garrison, Todd Andrews was puzzled at the exchange of lorries with the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. While Andrews was dimly aware that munitions were being passed between the two sides, he saw no paperwork, and heard nothing beyond gossip and conjecture, that could account for this unexpected glasnost.
For the opening moves, the leaders of the new venture met in McGarry’s Hotel, Letterkenny, having driven there the day before from Dublin. Present were Seán Lehane (Divisional O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Adjutant), Joe McGuirk (Quartermaster), Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), Denis Galvin (Support Officer) and two other men, Seán Fitzgerald and Mossy Donnegan.
Together, they formed the command echelon of the First Northern Division, with authority over the anti-Treaty IRA units in Derry, East Donegal, South Donegal and North-West Donegal. With everyone eager to start, it was agreed to seize two positions in Co. Donegal that would serve as launch-pads into the rest of Ulster, these being Raphoe town and Glenveagh Castle in the north-west county.
The former posed no difficulty. Two days later, on the 29th April 1922, the Irish Times reported how:
Unofficial [anti-Treaty] IRA forces who marched into Raphoe from the Letterkenny direction, yesterday commandeered the Masonic Hall, a solicitor’s office, and other buildings. They have fortified the buildings. The official [pro-Treaty] IRA occupy the barracks.
Raphoe was now host to two different armies. Elsewhere in Ireland, such as Limerick, Athlone, Mullingar and Kilkenny, such arrangements had led to stand-offs, kidnappings and even deaths. In Raphoe, however, the two sides seemed to have co-existed amiably enough.
Since the takeover of the Masonic Hall had been unopposed, there had been no need for violence or other unpleasantries. The IRA intruders also took over the neighbouring office of a local solicitor as he was the possessor of the keys to the hall.
“We were quite gentlemanly in our dealings with this solicitor,” recalled Michael O’Donoghue, a future GAA president and one of the ten-strong group who had entered Raphoe.
The solicitor in question handed over the keys with good grace, asking in return for some sort of written authorisation. These he duly received in the form of documents issued under the authority of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive in the Four Courts, and signed by Seán Lehane and Peadar O’Donnell as the Divisional O/C and Adjutant respectively.
The only other request from the solicitor was that he keep his silver antiques and other valuables that were in the two large glass cabinets in his bedroom (his office was adjoined to his private residence). When this was also accepted by the new occupants of the building, the solicitor duly locked the cabinets and presented the keys to O’Donoghue, complete with two copies of an inventory to be signed.
Thanks to this minimum of fuss, the new garrison was able to get to work in fortifying the Hall with sandbags before preparations could be made for the next stage in the operation. With Glenveagh Castle also taken, O’Donoghue set up his workshop there and began training select groups from each of the IRA brigade areas in his speciality of military engineering.
O’Donoghue drew up a plan for the making and assembling of mines, bombs and other explosives and left his assistant to oversee their manufacturing process, using whatever scraps of material at hand. Meanwhile, he accompanied Lehane in liaising between the various brigade areas and setting up Special Engineering Services there, no easy task considering that he was having to build from scratch.
Four brigades in Donegal and Derry were visited and reformed accordingly in the space of about ten days. The absence of bases remained a problem, with the Anti-Treatyites possessing only three barracks in its area. The rest of such buildings, now evacuated by British forces, were now in pro-Treaty IRA hands.
Meeting the Opposition
The first of many problems was how the Anti-Treatyites, as in Raphoe, did not have area to themselves. Lehane and his officers may have called themselves the First Northern Division but there was already a unit with that name, whose members had decided that their place lay with the Treaty, and they far outnumbered their opposing counterparts in Donegal.
According to Lehane, writing to the press on the 10th May, a week after the tragedies, he had attempted to contact the general of the pro-Treaty forces in order to minimise the risk of the two separate Divisions butting heads.
Unfortunately, Joe Sweeney was not nearly as accommodating, and a fortnight passed without an answer. In the meantime, the Anti-Treatyites were finding themselves under constant harassment, being often held up, searched, disarmed or even detained by Pro-Treatyites.
Pressed by his subordinates to do something, Lehane finally gained a meeting with Sweeney at the latter’s headquarters in Drumboe Castle. Daly was with Lehane, while Sweeney was accompanied by his adjutant, Tom Glennon from Belfast.
“We met on friendly terms and discussed the whole position,” Lehane wrote:
I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.
Lehane asked Sweeney, if not assist, then at least not to hinder him in his work. Was it his intention otherwise for civil strife in Donegal? But the other man remained unmoved:
Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’
In the face of such a bald declaration, there was nothing else Lehane or Daly could say to make a difference, not even when Daly appealed to Sweeney on the basis of personal friendship. Their olive branch having withered, the two Anti-Treatyites withdrew from Drumboe Castle, and the situation between the two IRA factions remained frigid.
Sweeney’s implacable attitude raises the question of how much he knew about the secret deal between Collins and Lynch. When interviewed years later, he described how:
Collins sent an emissary to say that he was sending arms to Donegal, and that they were to be handed over to certain persons – he didn’t tell me who they were – who would come with credentials to my headquarters.
Cooperation with the Anti-Treatyites did not interest Sweeney in the slightest. When rifles arrived at Drumboe Castle in two lorries from Dublin, Sweeney was obliging enough to have their serial numbers chiselled off before smuggling some over to the IRA units in the Six Counties. He kept the rest, however, unwilling to risk them ending up in the hands of those his adjutant had proclaimed as their enemies.
Secrets and Uncertainties
This would suggest that the full details of the joint-offensive deal were unknown to Sweeney. Alternatively, he may not have cared, thinking that whatever had been agreed to in distant Dublin was not relevant in Donegal. After all, for all of Lehane’s protestations of brotherhood, the Anti-Treatyites did not always conduct themselves as the model of civility.
Only a month ago, on the night of the 25th March, the pro-Treaty garrison in Newtowncunningham barracks had found themselves under attack when Anti-Treatyites arrived in a number of motorcars and, after taking up positions that overlooked the barracks, gave vent with rifles and revolvers.
As reported in the Derry Journal:
The affray, which was characterised with bloodshed, opened with a few intermittent rifle shots and developed into something in the nature of a pitched battle.
For three hours, the village inhabitants were kept awake and on tenterhooks by the crack of gunshots. When the assailants finally withdrew, having failed to take the barracks, they left behind dozens of spent cartridges.
Even after the arrival of Lehane and his Munster auxiliaries, the behaviour of the Anti-Treatyites could be found wanting. When the Derry Journal and Derry Standard earned their ire, copies of those newspapers were seized by armed men from the train taking them to their retailers on the night of the 31st March, and burnt. When fresh copies were sent on a second train, this too was held up and the reprints destroyed.
One of the hijackers, noted by the Derry Journal, “spoke with a pronounced Southern accent.”
Elsewhere, parties of Anti-Treatyites were reported to be holding up cars at gunpoint in West Donegal, and either forcing the motorists to drive them elsewhere or simply taking the cars for themselves. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sweeney would be reluctant to ally with such men, let alone permit them more weapons than they already had.
Plan of Action
Squeezed between the more numerous Pro-Treatyites in Donegal and the well-equipped Crown forces stationed in the Six Counties, the Anti-Treatyites were in a precarious position. Throwing to the winds his initial plan for a gradual build-up, Lehane summoned another council of war in McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny. There, he drew up plans for an ambitious triple-pronged night attack.
Daly was to command a sixteen-strong force, consisting of ten Tyrone and six Kerry men, to assault Molenan House, Co. Derry, which was held by about twenty Crown policemen.
At the same time, Lehane was to take the lead with thirty others against a British camp at Burnfoot that lay about five miles from Derry City. As this base was strongly garrisoned with soldiers as well as police, complete with armoured cars and machine-guns, this looked to be a daunting mission, particularly since so few of the Donegal natives involved had seen any action before, but Lehane hoped that it would at least serve as a baptism of fire for them.
The third advance was to be a robbery on the Ulster Bank in Buncrana, a village in the north of Donegal. There, they seize all the banknotes that the five-man team could find.
At the appointed time, Lehane moved from Raphoe, where his column had assembled, riding northwards in a small fleet of stolen cars. The men carried rifles and hand grenades, with revolvers and automatics for the officers. Travelling slowly along byroads, the flotilla came across a large crowd, mostly of young men, who had gathered near a road junction, eight miles out of Raphoe.
These were surrounded and searched for arms, something which they submitted to with apparent good humour. O’Donoghue felt ashamed all the same, the treatment he and his comrades were meting out reminding him too much of that by the Black and Tans he had fought against in Cork.
When the column neared Burnfoot Railway Station, they left their vehicles to advance more quietly on foot. It was now midnight, the designated zero hour for the operation. After some last minute instructions from Lehane, the men went about their allocated tasks.
O’Donoghue’s was to cut the telegraph cables in the station to ensure that no calls for aid could be sent to the British garrison in Derry. This O’Donoghue did with the help of a Derryman called McCourt who acted as a guide for what was for the Corkman a foreign land.
He was about to find out just how foreign.
As the pair left the station, their mission a success, a cyclist suddenly emerged out of the night towards them. O’Donoghue called out to him to halt and, when the man continued to ride on, the Corkonian – not wanting to risk a shot lest it lose them the element of surprise – grabbed him as he tried to pass by and forced him to the ground. McCourt brandished a revolver in the stranger’s face, with a demand to know his religion.
O’Donoghue was shocked:
It was my first experience of sectarian animosity in Ulster and to see an armed I.R.A. man acting like a truculent and religious bigot angered me. I turned on McCourt: “None of that” I ordered, “I don’t care a rap what his religion is and I’ll ask the questions [emphasis his].”
The frightened man was led away to be detained in the large shed where the other civilians who the column had come across were being held. With the area as secure as it could be, the IRA men checked the time and saw that it was about 1 am.
Moving in two files, towards the camp two miles away in the dark, the IRA men entered a boreen that ran parallel to the main Derry road. When they found the way blocked by a waterlogged trench, the men crept carefully alongside the fences lining the boreen until they had bypassed the pool.
Nearing the Burnfoot camp, they froze when they saw lights flashing ahead of them in the distance. Some sort of message was being sent out, the men were sure, but none of them could tell what. Had they been discovered? Were the enemy alerted to their presence?
The column members pushed on regardless, being rewarded by the sight of a flickering red light that signified a fire. The British would surely not be so foolish as to leave such an obvious guide in the dark if they thought they were about to be under attack.
Emboldened, the IRA men continued along the boreen until they were overlooking the enemy camp, a hundred feet below and a hundred and fifty yards away. The column could not have asked for a better ambush site as its members carefully chose their places.
The Battle at Burnfoot
The stillness of the night was shattered by a single shrill whistle-blast from Lehane, signalling the first volley from thirty or so rifles. Struggling to control his weapon’s recoil, O’Donoghue fired the full five bullets in the magazine before hurrying to reload.
In response, Verey rockets were sent up from the camp, one after another, lighting up the hillside until O’Donoghue felt as if he was beneath the spotlights of a theatre stage. Then came the rattle of machine-guns, mounted in the British armoured cars, the memory of which would be seared into his memory:
The din was terrific. Bullets whizzed overhead and thudded into the fence at our rear; they tore strips and sent splinters flying from the fence behind which we kept hunched down. Sharp crackling explosions overhead and in front – the enemy was using explosive bullets.
Outmatched in equipment and, fearing the immediate arrival of Crown reinforcements from Derry, Lehane gave the order to pull back. O’Donoghue and three others formed a rearguard, during which he was infuriated to find that ammunition and even a still-loaded revolver had been left behind, oversights that the munitions-starved Anti-Treatyites could scarcely afford.
O’Donoghue grabbed what he could and, when he judged that enough time had passed for the others to withdraw, the four of them fired a final riposte before leaving in turn. The enemy fire, having abated, returned with a vengeance from machine-guns, forcing the rearguard to crawl on their bellies until they were out of danger.
In the dark, they almost collided with Lehane, their O/C having conscientiously lingered to ensure that his four subordinates had made good their own escape. The IRA men returned to Burnfoot by daybreak and fell in for inspection. Two of them had been wounded, albeit slightly, and five had gone missing, presumably after taking a wrong turn in the dark.
Still, as the rest of the men pulled back towards Newtowncunningham, exhausted though they were, they could not help feeling jubilant at their first completed mission.
The column was aided by their enemies’ misconception that it had originated from Derry, where British soldiers and police spent the morning after stopping and searching pedestrians in a futile effort to identify the assailants. Other than a grazed hand, the occupants of Burnfoot Camp had avoided casualties.
When the IRA men reached Newtowncunningham in the early hour of 6 am, they took up billets in the village. Lehane, O’Donoghue and four others, all of them West Corkmen, selected a large mansion, half a mile away. Knocking on the door, they were admitted by the owner, who O’Donoghue remembered as being named ‘Black’.
As with the solicitor in Raphoe, the minimum of fuss was made. Despite his Orange-Loyalist outlook, Black played the role of gracious host as he invited his unexpected guests to a drink. Some awkward small talk was attempted, mostly about the political situation in Ulster, not that it was something any of the Corkonians could offer much about. It was something of a meeting of cultures, particularly for Back, who had never met Southern republicans before, and he was pleasantly surprised at their lack of interest in religious differences.
“To his mind, we were indeed rare ‘Papishes’,” remembered O’Donoghue.
As polite as everyone was, the IRA men were firm in their wants as they ordered no one to leave the house – a point they ensured by bolting and barring the exits – while taking the family bedrooms for their own. After a few hours of shut-eye, a messenger arrived at the door, breathlessly asking for Commandant Lehane.
‘A New and Appalling Catastrophe’
Once allowed in, the newcomer told them that he was from the squad sent to Buncrana. While making their getaway from the Ulster Bank they had robbed, the IRA men had been fired upon by the pro-Treaty garrison in the village. Despite suffering a couple of wounds, the Anti-Treatyites had all escaped and were currently resting in Newtowncunningham with the rest.
For Lehane, O’Donghue and the others, there was little time to lose:
We hurriedly dressed and came down to a substantial breakfast, served by two daughters of the house with politeness and efficiency, but icily distant and formal in their manner.
After eating, the six Corkmen hurried to the village and mobilised the rest of the IRA there. A dejected Daly had also returned with his squad, having failed to take Molenon House. They had arrived to find the building locked and barricaded. After hammering on the door and shuttered windows had failed to gain entrance or even provoke the occupants – assuming there were any – into any sort of reaction, the IRA party reluctantly retired.
As Daly related this, O’Donoghue could not help but feel for his colleague:
It was an ignominious failure for Charlie to report and he felt it all the more keenly since we in Lehane’s party had fought an all-out battle.”
Lehane and his officers next inspected the wounded pair from Buncrana. One had a minor leg wound, while the other, a Tipperary native called Doheny, had been shot through the lung. While a wan Doheny kept up a brave face, there was no mistaking his urgent need for medical attention. He was about to be driven to the nearby hospital but, before his comrades could do so, as O’Donoghue put it, “a new and appalling catastrophe occurred with the suddenness of a bolt from the blue.”
An inquest was held the day after on the 5th May. As it took place in the pro-Treaty IRA base of Drumboe Castle, it is unsurprising that the findings would have a certain slant.
The first witness was Colonel-Commander Tom Glennon. He told how, upon receiving word of the fighting in Buncrana on the morning of the 4th, he set off with a party of fifty men in three Crossleys and five Fords. Glennon led from the front, seated next to the driver of the first Crossley. When entering Newtowncunningham, he told the court, a man ran out from behind a wall and shouted ‘halt’.
The word was barely out when rifle rife was heard coming from both sides of the road. Deciding that to resist was suicidal, exposed as they were and outnumbered – he believed he was facing between 100 and 150 assailants – Glennon told the driver to speed on as far he could.
“You did not anticipate an attack?” asked the coroner, James Boyle.
Glennon: No; if I had, they would not have got us as easily as they did.
Boyle: You were not going to attack any person in Newtowncunningham?
Glennon: No, we were not.
Boyle: Was there anything said besides the word ‘halt’ before fire was opened on you?
Glennon: No, the shout ‘halt’ and the first volley of shots came at the same time.
Boyle: Have you heard that a man named Lehane was in charge of the attacking party?
Glennon: Yes, I heard that.
Boyle: Is he from County Donegal?
Glennon: No, he is from County Cork.
Glennon added that his men had had their rifles at straight, as opposed to at the ready which was what they would have done had they been expecting anything. In contrast, Glennon said he had seen, after driving out of Newtowncunningham, several enemy scouts positioned nearby. He concluded from this that the attack had been carefully planned.
Boyle: Is it possible that they knew you were going through to Buncrana?
Glennon: It is possible.
A member of the jury, Mr Shesgreen, was next to question the witness, asking if he knew the time of the incident. Glennon replied that it had been 6 pm.
Shesgreen: That is two hours after the truce was declared. Do you know whether the attackers got through notice from the headquarters in the Four Courts about the truce?
Glennon: I could not say. Official information did not reach Drumboe until after we left.
In a tragic postscript, an armistice between the two IRA factions had been signed that morning in Dublin between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch. It had come too late to make a difference in Newtowncunningham, however.
The three dead men – all Donegal natives – were identified as Corporal Joseph McGinley, Daniel McGill and Edward Gallagher. McGinley had had two wounds, one in his upper thigh, fracturing the bone, and the other low in the abdomen. McGill had been hit in the back and near the kidneys, while Gallagher had received two bullets to the groin.
An Alternative Point of View
The pro-Treaty line was that Newtowncunningham had been a premeditated ambush, their soldiers driving obliviously into a death-trap without so much as a warning. Lehane replied to these accusations in a letter to the press on the 10th May:
With reference to the recent tragic incident…I wish to state the published accounts of the facts connected therewith misrepresents the actual circumstances of the occurrences.
By noon on the 4th May, Lehane had received word that his men in Buncrana had been “fired on without warning by a party of pro-Treaty forces, who were concealed in houses.”
On this point, Lehane had a legitimate complaint as the Anti-Treatyites had been leaving the Ulster Bank in Buncrana at the time. Of course, as they had just held up the staff and robbed the bank of £8000, it was perhaps still not something that cast them in the best of lights.
Bearing the brunt of the fighting were the civilians who found themselves caught up in the crossfire. Five were wounded, some seriously. Among the victims were a father and daughter, said to be hit by the same bullet that ripped the hand of John Kavanagh before striking Mary Ellen Kavanagh (19). Peter McGowan (56) was injured in both legs, while Patrick Maguire received a flesh wound near his eye.
Of the combatants, John Doherty (24) of the Pro-Treatyites was shot in the elbow. Among the raiders, two were initially reported to have been slain, but that was erroneous. The pair were instead wounded, one thought to be seriously, though they were able to drive away with the rest of their party.
The most tragic of all was 9-year old Essie Fletcher. She was brought to Derry Infirmary with a gunshot wound in her abdomen. Surgery was quickly performed but to no avail and she died later that day.
While unaware of the full extent of the mayhem in Buncrana, Lehane knew that he had to do something. Relations with the other side had never been cordial in Donegal but now they had taken a decidedly violent turn. After consulting his officers, they agreed to move to Buncrana. He did not add in his letter to the press what he had hoped to achieve there – returning to the scene of a battle seems odd when his intentions were supposedly peaceful.
In any case, it was 6 pm by the time Lehane had mobilised his men and they were about to board their cars when a growing rumble warned of the arrival of another force. Mindful that these could be British soldiers or Crown policemen on the warpath from Burnfoot, Lehane “with a view to protecting my men…gave the order to take cover behind a broken-down fence, which was the only place available at the moment.”
Only he and Daly remained out in the open. They walked down the road to ascertain who was coming. Seeing that they were fellow IRA men, albeit of a pro-Treaty persuasion, Lehane and Daly called on them to halt.
Instead of doing so a shot was fired from the third lorry, the bullet passing over my head and smashing the fanlight of the door of a house near by, in which our wounded comrade, who had been brought from Buncrana, was then lying.
That was all the spark that was needed:
There was an immediate outbreak of fire from both forces, the pro-Treaty forces using Thompson guns as their lorries dashed though the streets. My men were ordered out on the street, as their positions were being enfiladed by fire from the lorries.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Treatyites were coming under attack from another direction. The men in the five Ford cars making up the tail of the convoy, which the Anti-Treatyites had been previously unaware, had dismounted to take shelter in a field, from where they could contribute to the shooting. Taking cover as well, the Anti-Treatyites fired back and managed to outflank the other side, forcing them back.
Lehane stressed the essentially defensive nature of his side: “On several occasions parties of them were at our mercy, but we fired only with the intention of dislodging them.”
Two Pro-Treatyites were taken prisoner after falling out of their Crossleys. One had been slightly hurt by the impact but otherwise they were unharmed. In addition to the POWs, the Anti-Treatyites took possession of two rifles, a revolver, six rifle grenades and some ammunition, as well as the Ford cars the Pro-Treatyites had abandoned in their flight.
After being brought to Raphoe, the captives told of how they had been ordered to leave their lorries and fight in the event of an attack. Lehane stressed how these two had been well-treated, the injured man tended to by a doctor, after which they were allowed to go free the next morning.
As for the truce that had come just before and too late, Lehane could plead a good excuse for not knowing of it:
Owing to our being on active service I did not get that wire until the following day, and only learned of the truce on the arrival of the Dublin papers on the morning of the 5th.
While expressing his regrets and that of his staff, and their sympathies for the families of the deceased, Lehane declared his conscience clean: “The actions and honesty of purpose of my officers and men will bear the fullest investigation.”
As for relations between the two sundered IRA wings, Lehane bore no grudges: “I am willing now as heretofore to secure an honourable understanding.”
Such a hope seemed very distant. Sweeney wrote in turn to the press, complaining at Lehane’s attempt “to make it appear that an unprovoked attack was made by our men on an inoffensive party,” as he witheringly put it.
The first shot could not have come from the third Crossley as Lehane claimed, countered Sweeney, because that vehicle had not yet appeared from around the bend before the shooting began. The fact that the Pro-Treatyites were chatting and singing while on board, Sweeney wrote, alone testified to their complete surprise.
As for the claim from the other side that they had been unsure as to who had been driving towards them:
There are people who overheard conversations of the [anti-Treaty] men in Newtowncunningham prior to the ambush prepared to state that the ambush was prepared with the full knowledge as to who were to be attacked.
As if that was not evidence enough, he continued, an Anti-Treatyite had said to one of Sweeney’s men that not only had the ambush been planned, but not enough casualties had been inflicted in his opinion.
He conceded that the prior attempt at peace talks at Drumboe Castle, as described by Lehane, had occurred. But Sweeney was adamant that:
It should be understood that as an officer responsible to GHQ of the Army of the Elected Government of the people, it did not lie within my power to arrange “a basis of unity and co-operation” with a man who absolutely repudiated the Army, GHQ, and the people’s Government.
Sweeney’s closure to his letter was both an echo and a rebuttal of Lehane’s own: “An honourable understanding may be had by the recognition of constituted authority.”
‘The Attitude of Hate and Bias’
Years later, O’Donoghue would be brooding on the injustice he believed had been inflicted on him and his own. To him, that there had been a truce was particularly damning to the Pro-Treatyites who had “set out the morning after the truce to round up the IRA. The Free State officers…knew of the truce, the IRA officers did not [emphasis his].”
The underlining showed how strongly O’Donoghue felt on the matter. That the verdict from the coroner’s inquest was one of “wilful murder” was another grievance of his: “This shows the attitude of hate and bias fostered at the time by the Press in general against the Irish Republican Army.”
Regardless of the whys and whats, Lehane, O’Donoghue and a few other officers took advantage of the armistice to return to Dublin, albeit briefly – there was still work to be done in the North, after all. Lehane reported to Liam Lynch in the Four Courts on the progress made so far, while O’Donoghue was impatient to add the necessary equipment to his bomb-making workshop. Regardless of the bloodshed in Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, they and the rest of their colleagues fully intended to continue their mission.
Towards the end of the month, on the 27th May, the eighth victim of the Buncrana shootout, 19-year-old Mary Ellen Kavangh died in the Derry Infirmary. She had been shot in the upper part of her back, with the bullet lodging in her left lung. Death was ruled to be due to haemorrhage. That made her the second fatality at Buncrana, after 9-year old Essie Fletcher, and the fifth one on that unhappy day.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.
As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:
I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.
As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:
Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.
For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.
This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).
An Extremist Speaks
Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:
Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.
Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.
Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.
Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.
‘Red with Anger’
For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.
When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”
“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.
Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.
Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.
Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.
That Gang of Mine
Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”
The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?
Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.
Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.
He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”
Only One Army
When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.
Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.
Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.
By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.
As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”
He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.
On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”
The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.
Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.
The Army of the Republic
Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:
At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.
The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.
Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.
“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.
“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.
As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”
This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”
For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.
Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.
Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.
Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.
The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.
The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.
After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.
The First Glorious Day
Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.
“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”
Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!
This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.
“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.
Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”
After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.
Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.
As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.
After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”
When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”
In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:
On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.
No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.
And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.
The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.
He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”
Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.
Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:
Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.
Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.
I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.
The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.
Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”
That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.
He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:
The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.
The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.
This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.
As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.
In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.
The West Awakens
The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:
As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.
That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.
Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.
A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.
“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.
The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.
Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:
Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.
Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:
As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.
And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.
The Sligo Situation
The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.
Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.
Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.
Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.
It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.
Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.
Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.
Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.
There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.
Success in Sligo
This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.
As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?
After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.
He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.
As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.
The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.
A Death in Athlone
The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.
“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.
“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.
Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.
Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.
This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.
Securing the Midlands
Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.
While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.
When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.
At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.
Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.
Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.
Squabbles in the Dáil
Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.
The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.
But not all agreed on the solution.
Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:
At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.
Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:
De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.
Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.
De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.
As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”
An Impossible Situation
Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”
Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.
All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.
At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.
It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.
Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.
Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”
At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.
Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.
She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.
In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”
The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.
The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.
In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:
They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.
At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.
As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:
I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.
Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.
A Longford Wedding
Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.
Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.
Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.
But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.
Or perhaps not.
A Return to Sligo
Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.
Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.
Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.
It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.
Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11
Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)
Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office )
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Sitting by an open window on the morning of the 28th June 1922, the yellow lights of the Dublin tramway blurred by the drizzle, the journalist who would publish under the penname ‘Nichevo’ looked outside at the sound of marching boots:
Irish troops were on the move. Down the street they tramped in the misting rain, two long files of them on either side of the road, strapping men and whistling boys, equipped with all the cruel paraphernalia of modern war.
An hour had passed since the journalist had seen the last of the soldiers when the clock struck four and Dublin shook. From the distance could be heard the boom of artillery, punctuated by the snap of rifles and a harsh machine-gun rattle. “The whole city seemed to be alive with noise,” he wrote. “Shots echoed and re-echoed from the dripping walls…The battle for the Four Courts had begun.”
Venturing out in the afternoon, ‘Nichevo’ joined the thick throng of spectators lining the quays, across from the centre of attention. For all their bombast, the 18-pound shells from the National Army artillery had made little impact on the Four Courts, save for a few nicks and dents on the walls. Still, the sight alone was too much for some onlookers to bear in silence.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said one elderly man, leaning over to spit into the Liffey waters.
An End and the Start
The bombardment continued unrelentingly that evening, and all night, and then throughout the following day. News filtered to the crowd that several buildings in nearby Sackville (now O’Connell) Street had also been seized by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with snipers taking up position on rooftops. “Now and then an armoured car would dash through the streets, but one saw very few signs of military activity, although one heard plenty of them.”
One thing ‘Nichevo’ could see was that the Four Courts, a newly blown hole in its flank, could not hold out for much longer. As the odds of the beleaguered defenders lessened, their compatriots elsewhere in the city centre conversely grew bolder, emerging out of cover to grab food, bedding, kitchen utensils and anything else of use for a drawn-out siege.
Things finally grew quiet that night, as if the artillery guns had tired themselves out. Then came the thundering denouement on the morning of the 30th:
An ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin. Compared to this, the booming of the 18-pounder gun had been the merest murmur. Windows were smashed, houses shook from roof to cellar, the sky was darkened with a cloud of flying debris as the Four Courts disappeared into smoke.
A mine had detonated inside the Four Courts. The building complex was left in ruins, along with the resistance of its defenders. Grimy, red-eyed men and boys were led out, some shaken, others grimly contumacious, and escorted by green-coated soldiers towards the Jameson’s Distillery, where they would be held until transferred to Mountjoy Prison.
“It must be all over now,” wrote ‘Nichevo’. While Sackville Street remained a battleground, there was now a lull in the fighting, and a stillness had settled over the city. “Can it be nearing the end? Please God.”
But, as far as some were concerned, it was most certainly not over.
Despite his capture as part of the garrison, Ernie O’Malley was able to slip out with several others through a side-door in the Jameson Distillery. The escapees hurried over the Church Street Bridge and walked along the river until they were opposite the still-smouldering Four Courts, the site of their defiant stand mere hours before.
After pausing to gaze with morbid fascination at the gaping holes and crumbling upper storeys, the party hurried on. The night was spent in a friendly house before they travelled the next morning to Bray, first by tram and then on foot, hoping to link up with their compatriots. Instead they found only to find a smoking ruin in place of its barracks, its anti-Treaty garrison having set the building alight before withdrawing to Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where the rest of the IRA in South Dublin were mustering. O’Malley could not help but sourly wonder where they had been when the Four Courts needed them.
Regardless, he and his party commandeered a motor – carjacking being a common occurrence in Ireland by then – and drove to Blessington. Taking charge as the most senior officer present, O’Malley ordered for the village to be fortified as best it could, with barricades thrown up and mines scattered on the roads leading in. The inhabitants probably did not appreciate the intrusion, but no matter.
The next day, about seventy men from the Tipperary IRA arrived in a ragtag flotilla of char-a-bancs, Crossley tenders and motorcars. Combined, the Dubliners and the newcomers now numbered one hundred and thirty. Equipped with mines and explosives, as well as their firearms, they posed a formidable challenge. At last, O’Malley felt he could take the fight to the enemy.
By midnight, they were driving in a line towards the city centre, until the news that their colleagues had already decided to evacuate their positions in Sackville Street stopped them in their tracks. Crestfallen, the convoy returned to Blessington for the night.
Cutting a Swathe
At least the setback allowed O’Malley time to garner a better sense of the outside situation. Better informed than the Dubliners, the Tipperary men told him that Liam Lynch was currently in Limerick, having resumed the post of IRA Chief of Staff. But this update did not come with any direction on how to proceed, a common complaint among the Anti-Treatyites, many of whom were left floundering in the first few critical days of the war.
But not O’Malley. He had been urging for more aggressive moves from the start, frustrated by what he saw as Lynch’s passivity. Finally free to act, O’Malley decided to take his newfound war-band outside the city in search of easier targets. Once Munster was back under IRA control, he believed, they could then return to Dublin and settle the score.
Leaving some men to hold Blessington, O’Malley drove out with his mixed band of Tipperary émigrés and Dubliners. They approached Carlow, where an attack on the Free State-held town was considered, but that was put aside in favour of pressing on to Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in response to a call for aid.
They arrived at the town to the crack of gunfire as the Pro-Treatyites defended the castle from their IRA besiegers. O’Malley led his warband in blowing a hole in the outer yard gate of the castle with their explosives, followed by the similar demolition of the front entrance, at which point the occupants decided the time had come to wave the white flag. After extracting an oath from the prisoners to fight no more for the Free State, O’Malley allowed them to go free.
The next stop on this martial road trip was Ferns, which also fell without much further ado, followed by Borris in Co. Carlow and then Tullow. While contemplating the next moves to be launched against Carlow and Athy, O’Malley sent word to Limerick, asking Lynch for reinforcements to help attack the remaining Free State holdouts before the enemy could regroup.
“Tis in Vain…”
Had he talked with Séumas Robinson, O’Malley would have known how fruitless such a request would be. The Tipperary men who had arrived to help was only been a fraction of the numbers Robinson, as O/C of the Southern Tipperary Brigade, wanted to send. He had talked with Lynch on the train out of Dublin in the wake of the Four Courts attack, trying his best to persuade the Chief of Staff that the capital was the key to winning.
But Lynch would not hear of it. His orders had been for each of his officers to return to their localities and fight from there. It was in the countryside, Lynch believed, that the war would be decided. Although he did not yet know it, O’Malley was on his own.
Instead of reinforcements, Lynch sent a note on the 10th July, appointing O’Malley to Assistant Chief of Staff. His instructions were to proceed at once to Dublin and organise a staff for himself there, while simultaneously managing the IRA units in Leinster and Ulster. This was a tall order indeed, and O’Malley was momentarily flummoxed before pulling himself together.
“’Tis in vain for soldiers to complain,’ was what Wolfe Tone had written in his diary. It would be a much quoted mantra in the days to come.
That was the last he saw of his Tipperary contingent. Having little taste for the unfamiliarity of urban combat, they elected to return to their home county. O’Malley bore no ill will as he shook their hands and even advised them on the best routes to take. All he felt as he watched them drive off in a swirl of dust and a rumble of engines was a pang of loneliness.
Making a Start
Upon arriving back in his home city – by then under enemy occupation – O’Malley swiftly adjusted from warlord to underground operative. His immediate need was a base from which to build his command, and for this a studio room at the top of a Georgian house was found. Its owner was away on holiday, but when his wife warned of seeing suspicious men lurking outside, O’Malley took the hint to find another place.
He moved into number 36 on the prim and proper Ailesbury Road in leafy Donnybrook, from which to plan the next stage in the war. The home was owned by the sympathetic Ellen Humphreys, who had been hiding ‘on the run’ IRA leaders since the struggle against Britain.
“Surely the Staters would never think that we would have the hardihood to use such a well-known house again,” O’Malley reasoned and, for a time, he was correct.
In keeping with his penchant of hiding in plain sight, O’Malley began dressing as flamboyantly as he could, complete with brilliant ties and a hat festooned with peacock feathers, in order to deter anyone from thinking he was someone with anything to hide. As a finishing touch, he would carry a copy of that most mainstream of newspapers, TheIrish Times, during his daily jaunts as part of his cover as just another harmless citizen. He did, though, keep a revolver secreted on himself just in case, and practised his quick-draw each morning.
A quick learner in counter-surveillance, O’Malley studied the routes he would take for the day, taking care to differentiate. When the number of enemy patrols increased, including armoured cars and plainclothes teams, O’Malley switched from foot to use of a bicycle in the hope that its speed would grant him an increased chance at escape if recognised.
Despite the dangers, he preferred the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting with members of his staff or officers visiting from the country, believing that a written note would not have the same impact. Besides, he did not know many of the men he was supposed to be managing. He might have heard their names or met them briefly, but with no real notion as to their capabilities. Communications with areas outside of Dublin was haphazard, not to mention hazardous, with couriers having to risk hostile territory or friendly areas that had fallen into confusion thanks to the inertia of the months before.
With painful slowness and the steadfast assistance of his staff, O’Malley was able to piece together a picture of the situation he faced, until finally he had something he could report to Lynch about.
O’Malley did his Chief of Staff the courtesy of the unvarnished truth, in that the odds in Dublin were very much not in their favour. Writing to Lynch on the 28th July, he told of how in the city:
Enemy very active and in some cases whole coys [companies] have been picked up. This cannot be prevented, as the men must go to their daily work and there are not sufficient funds on hand to even maintain a strong column.
“We will carry on here as best we can,” O’Malley assured him, “but I am afraid we cannot bring the war home to them very effectively in Dublin.”
At least a flying column had been started, he said, with some operations already under its belt, although O’Malley admitted that he could provide no specifics as he had yet to receive any reports.
Constant enemy sweeps through the city and the arrest of some of his top officers had stifled the rest of the attempted resurgence, moving O’Malley to ask for permission to carry out something ambitious, such as seizing a block of buildings for a day or two before melting away. O’Malley was honest about the slim odds of a successful retreat but surely anything was better than waiting to be picked off?
Showing that he was unafraid to think big, even while in dire straits, O’Malley added that he was arranging for the capture of some leading bigwigs in the Free State. Holding them would present a difficulty, however, and he reached out to Lynch for help: “Could you arrange to look after them if we do not take them?”
If O’Malley was choleric, then Lynch was phlegmatic. The Chief of Staff’s main concern in his letter of reply, written from Co. Cork on the 2nd August, was the safety of his subordinate:
In view of the great activity of the enemy, you and other prominent officers here should take the greatest precautions. I would like to be able to rely on your safety to direct command. Keep people from seeing you – send deputies to interview those who must be seen, and direct things by dispatch.
Similarly, Lynch warned against grand gestures which could only result in the irreplaceable loss of what few men and scant equipment they could still muster. As for any prisoners taken, O’Malley would have to keep them where he was, for the situation in the country was too unsettled to be considered secure.
Instead, O’Malley was to focus on sabotaging wires and telegraph poles in order to better isolate enemy posts from each other. As Lynch explained: “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics.”
The next day, a matter of pressing concern had occurred to the Chief of Staff:
Owing to the abuse of the Tricolour by Free Staters during the present hostilities, it has been decided that the Republican flag, when used by us, will bear the letters ‘I.R.’
There is no indication of any IRA unit effecting such a change. There were presumably more important things to worry about, such as survival.
Another problem worthy of Lynch’s micromanaging was the hostility of the press. “Enemy stuff is very vile and shows the steps they are driven to,” he complained. For a man usually impervious to the opinions of others, he could be quite thin-skinned.
‘We Are in Earnest’
His solution was for O’Malley to murder the editors of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, the two largest newspapers in the country. O’Malley did not go so far as to refuse but, believing that there were worthier targets, he made no effort to implement these particular orders. He pressed for the Cabinet members of the Provisional Government to be targeted instead, but Lynch vetoed that approach on the grounds that the pro-Treaty military posed a more immediate danger.
Hoping to counterbalance enemy propaganda, O’Malley sent a letter to the Irish Independent, on the 19th August, defending the IRA from its media portrayal as made up of “blackguards, brigands, freebooters or ruffians”, and stressing the willingness of the Anti-Treatyites to fight without pay or material gain.
According to O’Malley, only the cause mattered to him and his compatriots: “The Republicans who are engaged in this war are fighting in a just and holy cause – namely, the defence of the Republic to which they have sworn to be faithful.”
Unfortunately, the pent-up frustrations spilled out onto the page of his righteously worded polemic, overwhelming any attempts to sound reasonable. “No vituperation is going to defeat this cause,” O’Malley said, adding petulantly: “The sooner you realise that the better.”
Lynch also pondered the ways in which the republican message could reach a wider audience. “If our activities and operations only could get fair publishing we would get ahead by leaps and bounds,” he mused on the 30th August. At least reports indicated that civilian attitudes were improving towards the IRA and the republican cause in general, which Lynch attributed to the determination on display: “They realise now we are in earnest and mean to fight.”
Still, public opinion “must be nursed a bit”, though Lynch fell short at explaining precisely how. The only suggestion he made on how to garner popular support was to send Count George Plunkett, the father of the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett, to Rome to protest to the Pope at the denunciations from the pulpits by the bishops and priests in Ireland.
Plunkett had previously been dispatched to the Vatican six years ago, just before the Easter Rising, to ensure that the then-Pope Benedict XV did not condemn the rebellion, so the Count made an inspired choice of papal emissary. The idea chimed in with Lynch’s top-down style of management, with the assumption that if one tier of a hostile hierarchy could be neutralised, then the lower ranks would obligingly fall into line.
The war in Dublin had improved little when O’Malley wrote back to his Chief of Staff on the 6th August. He tried to sound cautiously hopeful but came across more as fatalistic: “I have hopes, that is about all: one has to be patient here but certainly the circumstances are most peculiar and it is very difficult to counteract enemy espionage.”
His intelligence officers were hamstrung by being already known to the enemy – yet another unfortunate consequence of fighting former comrades – which made it hard to operate undetected. O’Malley cited one case of information failure when the Beggar’s Bush Barracks was undermanned with only forty Free Staters inside. The news was not forwarded to him until a day and a half later when the opportunity to strike had already passed.
Furthermore, “their propaganda is very insidious and ours is hopeless.”
His mood had not improved much by the time he wrote again: “There is not much to report on at present,” since he was still waiting for the report on the IRA attempt to isolate Dublin three nights ago on the 5th August. O’Malley would not receive this overdue report until the end of the month, by which time he would have been all too aware of the scale of the disaster and the crippling losses suffered by the Dublin IRA.
Fifty-eight men had been captured out of the hundred and forty-six involved, including their commanding officer. They had set out to demolish five canal or railway bridges connecting the city to the surrounding countryside, only to be intercepted and overwhelmed by the enemy. The armoured vehicles and massed machine-gun fire by the National Army were an advantage that the Anti-Treatyites could not hope to resist in a straight fight.
O’Malley’s hopes remained but not even he, it seemed, could take them seriously. In discussing the IRA in South County Dublin: “This area has not gone into working order as yet but I have ‘hopes’ – the usual ones.”
Lynch was of little help in advising on the situation, unsurprisingly so given how he lacked a realistic appraisal of his own. The surprise landings by the National Army in early August along the Cork and Kerry coastlines had thrown the IRA units stationed there into disarray, as Lynch admitted to O’Malley on the 18th August, rendering it impossible for them to focus on any one particular threat.
Yet he announced himself as “thoroughly satisfied with the situation now.” The guerrilla war he had always wanted was about to restart in Cork and Kerry, and Lynch had no doubt that “extensive operations will begin immediately” there. His main concern was with the “lying press propaganda” and the impact that may have on morale, as if the numerous setbacks were merely a case of adverse publicity.
On the 4th September, Lynch again cautioned O’Malley against anything too risky. There was to be no “big operations which only result in failure” – a cutting reference to the botched attempt to demolish the Dublin bridges a month ago.
Despite such failures and Lynch’s admonitions, O’Malley continued to chafe at his leash. Five days after receiving his Chief of Staff’s counsel against oversized operations, O’Malley complained to Liam Deasy, O/C of the First Southern Division, that “we are not going to win this war on purely guerrilla tactics as we did on the last war.”
Taking an enemy post, even a small one, would have a far greater impact than their current pin-prick approach, O’Malley believed.
Dublin remained key since there was not much point making the country ungovernable if the Pro-Treatyites continued to hold the capital. “If we could by means of better armament bring the war home to the Staters in the Capital,” he ruminated to Deasy, “it would have an immense effect on the people here and on the people in surrounding Counties.”
It was significant that O’Malley was telling this to someone other than Lynch. Also notable was how O’Malley was not expecting things to change anytime soon. The Chief of Staff was not one to change his mind once it was made up, and the rest of the Anti-Treatyites would just have to learn to live with that fact.
A numbness was seeping into O’Malley’s reports. In response to Lynch’s condolences on the death in action of his brother, he confessed that “to tell the truth I did not feel his loss much as I did not know him very well.” Still, his younger sibling had been “a good kid and died game.”
Speculations and Futility
Not everyone was as committed as Lynch or as resigned as O’Malley, with some on both sides wondering if there were not alternatives to the squalor and violence around them. Some of these imaginings centred on Michael Collins, whose death on the 22nd August 1922 was a turning point in more ways than one.
Lynch may have hailed it as the beginning of the end, the glimmer of victory at the end of a dark tunnel, but there were others who wistfully considered what might have been. Upon learning of the ambush planned on Collins at Béal na Bláth, Éamon de Valera was heard remarking that it would be a great pity if his adversary was killed as he would only be succeeded by inferior men.
Dan Breen went further. Though prepared to fiercely resist the Free State, along with the rest of the Tipperary IRA, Breen was open-minded enough to lend his services to the cause of peace if the opportunity arose, at least according to himself:
Michael Collins himself appeared to be on the point of attempting to seek a settlement shortly before his death. It has been said that he had announced (privately) his intention of getting in touch with de Valera in an effort to put an end to the conflict.
He did, undoubtedly, get in touch with Dan Breen, who received a message through an intermediary that Collins wanted to meet him. Breen discussed the message with General Liam Lynch and, with his knowledge and approval, set out for Cork to meet Collins.
Unfortunately, the projected meeting never took place…What would have been the outcome of the projected meeting between Breen and Collins is something on which we can only speculate, and such speculation would now be futile.
Overlooking Breen’s irritating tendency to refer to himself in the third person, there are certain hurdles to accepting this account at face value.
For one, while Lynch was certainly aware of the movement towards dialogue emanating from Cork, which he guessed to be a result of Collins’ presence there, he made his disinterest plain to O’Malley: “There can be no negotiations except on the basis of the recognition of the Republic” – which did not leave much room for discussion. The man who Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy believed could act as a moderating influence had turned out to be someone quite different.
Which leaves the last known interaction between Collins and Lynch as a brief correspondence in the press. It was an exchange that only publicly accentuated just how wide the gulf was between the two sides.
At least the People’s Rights Association of Cork had tried. Attempting to act as an honest broker, this group of concerned citizens forwarded to Collins on the 1st August a letter of reply to their own suggestion of peace it had received from Lynch.
“I wish to inform you that when the Provisional Government cease their attack on us, defensive actions on our part can cease,” Lynch had written. “If the Second Dáil, which is the Government of the Republic, or any other elected Assembly, carry on such Government, I see no difficulty as to the allegiance of the Army.”
In an accompanying letter to Lynch’s, the Association asked Collins if he was willing to arrange a ceasefire on the basis suggested by Lynch. The Commander-in-Chief of the National Army did not mince words in his published reply:
The Government has made it fully clear that its desire is to secure obedience to proper authority. When an expression of such obedience comes from irregular leaders I take it there will no longer be any necessity for armed conflict.
“The time for face-saving is passed,” Collins continued, with an air of finality:
Irregular leaders, political and military, got an opportunity of doing this over a period of seven or eight months. The issue now is very clear. The choice is definitely between the return of the British and the irregulars sending in their arms to the People’s Government, to be held in trust for the people.
‘Obedience to proper authority’, ‘sending in their arms’, ‘to be held in trust’ – less likely possibilities for the likes of Lynch and O’Malley could scarcely have been imagined.
“These scarcely need or deserve comment – we are sick of this sort of trash,” Lynch wrote in disgust at the latest ‘peace offers’ that amounted to nothing more than a demand by the enemy for an unconditional surrender.
A Reluctant Foe
Lynch was more concerned about the impact rumours of such talks might have on morale. There was a palpable sigh of exasperation in a letter of his to O’Malley on the 7th September:
So many private and unauthorised individuals are engaged in endeavouring to bring about peace in various terms, and are putting forward so many different proposals that it is necessary to inform all these individuals that the only body on our side competent to consider any proposals or terms submitted to us, or to put forward terms on which Peace may be concluded is the whole Army Executive.
Lynch was nothing if not protective of his prerogatives.
Collins appeared equally determined to resolve the war on his own terms. When Michael Brennan, who had led the Pro-Treatyites to victory in Limerick, talked with his Commander-in-Chief during the latter’s Munster tour, he came away with the distinct impression that Collins was not on a mission of peace.
“At the same time he was very attached to Cork men like Lynch and Deasy and didn’t want to fight them,” Brennan added.
Which may have been true. But, four months into the Civil War, it was clear that, however little Collins wanted to fight his former friends, he was prepared to do just that. With both him and Lynch convinced they were in the right and that the future of their country hung in the balance, neither leader was prepared to back down, ensuring that this was to be a struggle to the death – for the pair of them.
The Master or the Servant
The mentioning of the Second Dáil – the body elected in the 1921 election, before the Treaty was signed and the divisions began – and of elected assemblies in general, was a rare one by Lynch, who thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost. Politics and politicians were things best seen and not heard.
Even dabbling in such distractions could be a cause for suspicion. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch said of the left-leaning Liam Mellows.
But Lynch did not refer to the Dáil for its own sake but as part of a strategy to undermine the fledgling enemy state. The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government had come to that exact conclusion when, alongside Collins’ reply to People’s Rights Association of Cork, it delivered a scathing one of its own in regards to Lynch:
He demands in addition that the Dáil elected in June  should abrogate its sovereignty, ignore the mandate it received and base its policy entirely on the lines dictated by Mr Lynch and his associates in utter disregard of the will of the Irish people: that the army should be the master and not the servant of the people, and that the Government created by the people should be allowed to function only in so far as it obeys the orders of that army.
The desire to ignore the decision given by the Irish people in the June elections accounts for the stress laid upon a further meeting of the Second Dáil.
Which, based on Lynch’s own writings, was an accurate enough assessment of his intentions.
Pacts and Power
The Second Dáil had been the body of public representatives elected in the 1921 July general election. To head off the worsening Treaty divisions, a ‘Pact’ had been agreed by both sides, where the candidates from both factions would stand in the 1922 June election without reference to their Treaty positions.
This would allow, it was hoped, for the united front that had served everyone so well before to be preserved. That Collins had allowed other parties such as Labour and the Farmers Party, both of whom accepted the Treaty, to contest the election was seen by many in the anti-Treaty camp as a “flagrant violation” of the agreement, to quote Dan Breen, who himself had stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate.
It became an article of faith among the Anti-Treatyites that because it was the other side who had broken the Pact, everything that resulted was accordingly their fault. O’Malley put it succinctly in another letter to a newspaper, this time the Freeman’s Journal:
The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation but the wiseacres again, agreed to the Pact when they are weak, broke it when they thought they were strong, and achieved only a catastrophe.
Lynch was of like mind on this. When O’Malley reported back on a meeting with Monsignor John O’Hagan, the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, on the priest’s suggestion of a ‘Coalition Government’ – i.e. one with both Anti and Pro-Treatyites serving together – he was sceptical, believing that military success was just around the corner and which would render the need for any such compromise moot.
But Lynch, more calculating, signalled his consent: “I would consider it alright, as this would bring us to the position which the P.G. dishonoured, i.e. the De Valera-Collins Pact.” Besides, he cannily noted, belying the usual assessment of him as a political naïf, such an arrangement would give them another angle from which to attack the hated Treaty. They only had to win the one time, Lynch explained, for if the “Treaty is once shelved it is shelved forever.”
Otherwise, Lynch spent very little time pondering the intricacies and possibilities of democracy. A question arose at the start of September when Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, urged his Chief of Staff to do something about de Valera.
The former President of the Republic had been noticeably glum in the past month. He had even, according to Moloney, “contemplated taking public action which would ruin us.” Moloney admitted that the military situation had then been less than ideal but now that the wheel had turned, de Valera must be told, in no uncertain terms, to do nothing to embarrass them.
Also needing attention was the question of whether the anti-Treaty TDs elected in the 1922 election should attend the Third Dáil when it finally opened. If not, should their pro-Treaty counterparts be prevented from doing so as well? Not that it mattered too much, in Moloney’s view, since the Third Dáil in itself was an irrelevance.
“Since the ‘Panel Agreement’ was broken, the second Dáil is the only Government of the Republic,” Moloney said – a viewpoint which conveniently meant that there was no government at all, and certainly not one the IRA need kowtow to.
Lynch was to display no strong feelings either way. For all his talk about the Second Dáil as the Government of the Republic or whatnot, he could “see no useful purpose being served at the moment by trying to get the 2nd Dáil together,” as he told O’Malley.
Neither did Lynch see much use in politicians of any ilk, even ones on the same side. “I am not over anxious as to co-operation of Republican Party. Of course they are doing their best,” Lynch added with a touch of condescension. He did not believe that the IRA and their allied politicians had enough in common to be considered republican equals: “The Army has its mind made up to total separation from England; I do not think that can be said of Party.”
Not that Lynch was against the idea of cooperation per se. While he warned O’Malley against “political people” having any control over military propaganda, the IRA could still “accept all the assistance from them which they are prepared to give”, in what Lynch probably considered a generous concession on his part.
Lynch planned to hold a meeting of the IRA Executive as soon as he reached the town of Tipperary. During this, he hoped to form an Army Council, consisting of five or six nominees, which would focus on the military and civil concerns that arose. One such member, Lynch suggested, could be “responsible for availing of the many services which Republican Party can render us.”
Who would be serving who in such an arrangement was left in no doubt. In the meantime, Lynch offered his opinion – not his order, he stressed – that anti-Treaty TDs should not attend the Dáil. It was a weak response, verging on indifferent, that showed just how little importance he placed on the matter.
A Life In Hiding
Confined to his administrative duties in 36 Ailesbury Road, O’Malley did his best to make do. At least he had regular visitors in the form of Seán Dowling, the Director of Operations, and his young assistant, Todd Andrews, both of whom would help with the dispatches for the day.
In the evenings they would escape the paperwork for half an hour of tennis. Dowling had initially objected on the grounds of it being too risky, exposed as they would be in the back garden but, when O’Malley insisted, even the cautious Dowling began to enjoy himself as they played singles or doubles with the addition of Sheila Humphreys, the 23-year old daughter of the family. O’Malley kept a ball in his pocket in case enemy soldiers were sighted, in which case he would escape out of sight by hitting the ball into a neighbouring garden and then climbing over the fence to ‘retrieve’ it until the danger had passed.
Conversation was another pastime with his guests, whether gossiping about the people involved on either side, many of whom were personal acquaintances of his, or discussions on more cerebral topics such as the philosophy of Stoicism. It was a school of thought that had served him well during the War of Independence. As O’Malley recounted those days, Andrews “seemed to detect a note of pride in his accounts of his ability to endure torture and pain. It seemed as if he actually enjoyed his experiences in such situations.”
When Andrews called in one day, he found the normally unflappable O’Malley almost out of his mind with cabin fever. Desperate to get out of the house, he invited Andrews to join him on a trip for a haircut. Not wanting to be seen as cowardly, Andrews reluctantly agreed.
The pair caught a tram to Westmoreland Street, where there was the best barber in town, at least in O’Malley’s opinion. “While we waited our turn my nerves were stretched to breaking point,” remembered Andrews. To his horror, O’Malley was in no hurry to return to his fishbowl life in Ailesbury Road, indulging in not only a haircut but a singe and a shampoo. Mercifully for Andrews, he did go as far as a face massage but, on the way out, O’Malley paused to purchase two large cigars, one of which he handed to his friend.
“It would be difficult to describe a better method of calling attention to ourselves than by smoking large cigars on a sidewalk in the heart of the city,” Andrews bemoaned. That O’Malley was wearing one of his ostentatious hats – a “large off-white woollen cap” – did nothing to soothe his companion. By the time Andrews got away and returned home, he was in a state akin to shock.
Thinking back on his time with O’Malley, he considered the other man to be a victim of circumstances, condemned as he was to a tedious desk job:
…dispensing circulars to what at that time were mainly non-existent units of the IRA and when they existed, rarely receiving a reply. He would have achieved true fulfilment in leading a flying column or commando unit.
O’Malley would not have disagreed. He was uncomfortably aware of the incongruity of his situation, partaking in tennis and tea in suburbia, enjoying regular meals, while out in the hills and streets, his brothers-in-arms were struggling merely to survive. It was an all-too-common disparity, O’Malley knew, for many of his fellow officers were content to sit back as bureaucrats when they should have been out in the field, leading by example.
O’Malley would eventually get his chance to do just.
It was still dark at half seven in the morning of the 4th November when O’Malley was awoken by a knock on his bedroom door by Sheila to let him know that their house was surrounded.
After assuring her that he was alright, O’Malley remained in his room, placing his revolver on his dressing-table where he had also left a safety razor and a hand-grenade. He dressed in the darkness as quickly he could, pulling his trousers and coat over his pyjamas. Struggling to keep his breathing steady, he heard voices, then footsteps moving upstairs and closer.
There was the distant tapping of rifle-ends against the walls as the enemy searched for concealed rooms, like the one at the end of the corridor where O’Malley was waiting. The door to his bedroom had been changed to a wooden clothespress, which could be swung open by means of a spring connected to a wire to pull. This cunning device had been constructed during the War of Independence by a man who – as O’Malley was uncomfortably aware of – had joined the pro-Treaty side.
A rifle-butt knocked on the other side of the dummy clothespress, emitting a hollow sound that distinctly told of a room beyond. More rifles were struck against the wood, splintering it bit by bit. O’Mally was keenly tempted to fire his revolver through the door before dashing out in a blaze of glory but the fear of hitting any of the Humphrey family stayed his hand.
It was not until the partition finally swung open with a heavy crash that O’Malley gave in, firing twice at the first intruder and being rewarded with a cry of pain. Free Staters scrambled to escape as he emerged from his bolthole, shooting again, this time at a motion behind another door in the corridor, hitting Áine O’Rahilly, the sister of Ellen Humphreys, who was staying with them, in the chin.
Ellen appeared to help her sibling back into her room, gallantly assuring O’Malley not to worry. Thoroughly shaken, O’Malley forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. The sound of breaking windows told of how the enemy outside were firing on the house from all directions.
With the grenade in hand, O’Malley stepped downstairs to where he could hear the babble of voices, pulled the pin out and lobbed it at the Free Staters crowding the hall. The men stampeded for the door until the hall was empty save for the unexploded grenade, its cap belatedly revealed as defective, lying in the centre of the floor.
Making the decision to take the fight outdoors to spare his hosts any further danger, O’Malley left through the back and ran around the house, revolver in hand, opening fire at the first green coats he saw. A bullet struck him in the back, and then another to the shoulder, felling him to the previously manicured, now-torn lawn.
He managed to squeeze off more shots but his benumbed hand was only slowly responding to his mental commands. Again, he was hit from behind, but he struggled to his knees, and then on trembling legs. A fourth bullet found him, once more in the back, and he crumbled against the wall of the house.
O’Malley emerged from a red haze to find himself again inside the house, Ellen having managed to drag him there. Lying on his brutalised back, lacking the strength to turn over, he watched dimly as a circle of uniforms surrounded him.
AILESBURY ROAD FIGHT read the Irish Times headline, two days later on the 6th November:
One soldier of the national Army was killed, a prominent leader of the Republicans was seriously wounded when national troops sent to search 36 Ailesbury road.
“In many respects the affair was worthy of the cinema,” noted the article. The Republican leader in question had been driven away under heavy escort in a military ambulance, his condition being described as critical. The write-up he received in the newspaper, whose editor he had held off from assassinating, might at least have given him some satisfaction:
Ernest O’Malley was in charge of the Four Courts during the bombardment, and arranged its surrender. He afterwards escaped while in custody in Jameson’s distillery. He has displayed much activity throughout the country.
Despite the severity of his wounds, O’Malley would live, albeit as a prisoner for the duration of the war. His aforementioned activity had come to an end. Lynch took the loss of his right-hand man phlegmatically. As he promoted Moloney to fill O’Malley’s place in the IRA hierarchy, Lynch said that while the arrest was a serious loss, “he could have been taken at a worse time; it has led to no disorganisation.”
Furthermore, the “splendid fight” of O’Malley’s would serve as a stirring example to the others. If nothing else, Lynch could be relied upon to see any glass as half-full.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p.75