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

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

Tensions Brew

In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.

The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.

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Count Plunkett

According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”

Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.

But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”[1]

Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.

Kevin O’Shiel

His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:

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Kevin O’Shiel

Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.

The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.

The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”

When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”[2]

O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.

William O’Brien

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.

Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”

(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)

Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.

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William O’Brien

O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”[3] – this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.

(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)

The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.[4]

Factions

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Michael Collins

Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.

The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).

A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.

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Arthur Griffith

He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”

O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.

Locking Horns

The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.

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Rory O’Connor

Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.

The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.

It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.

As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.[5]

Disclosure and a Concert

For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:

We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.

The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”[6]

If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:

People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.

It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].

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His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.

With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.

The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.[7]

Thrown Out

True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.

In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?

Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.

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The Mansion House, Dublin

This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.

The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.

Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.[8]

An Announcement in Sligo

Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.

On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett

He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.[9]

First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.

Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).

Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:

Dear Sir,

Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:

  • Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
  • To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
  • To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.

If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?

It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.

Please do what you can as soon as possible.[10]

The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.[11] 

Rejects

The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:

The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.

At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.

It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”

Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.

Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.

If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?[12]

The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?

Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.

Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:

To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.

As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.

As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”

Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.

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(left to right) Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Arthur Griffith and Austin Stack

An Apple of Discord

Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”

Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”[13]

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Priests  at Maynooth University

Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”[14]

At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”[15]

Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”[16]

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Count Plunkett

‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’

The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:

Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.

“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.

Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”

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Father Michael O’Flanagan, one of the Count’s most ardent clerical supporters

Also writing to the Irish Independent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.

A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”[17]

A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”[18]

Moving Onwards

plunkettCount Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.

The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.

In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.

“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”[19]

How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.

Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…

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

 

Sources

[1] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 29-30

[2] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 22-3

[4] O’Brien, (WS 1776), pp. 98-101, 108 ; O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[5] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 135 ; O’Brien (WS 1776), pp. 101-103, 108 ; Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 21-2

[6] FJ, 03/03/1917

[7] Irish Times, 06/03/1917 ; Irish Independent, 06/03/1917

[8] FJ, 06/03/1917

[9] Irish Times, 19/03/1917

[10] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,383/3/11

[11] O’Shiel, pp. 33-4

[12] Cork Examiner, 02/04/1917 ; Sligo Independent, 14/04/1917 ; Irish Independent, 28/03/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 16/04/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[14] NLI, MS 11,383/4/6

[15] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/3

[16] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/2

[17] Irish Independent, 17/04/1917

[18] Ibid, 18/04/1917

[19] NLI, MS 11,383/1/7

 

Bibliography

Books

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

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

 

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Evening Telegraph

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sligo Independent

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

 

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Rising: Count Plunkett and His Family on the Road to Revolution, 1913-7 (Part I)

Failure to Comply

royal-dublin-society-rds-90It did not seem like much, that small article on the fourth page in the Freeman’s Journal for the 15th January 1917, tucked away on the top right-hand corner as if the newspaper was faintly embarrassed by it. Under the headline ROYAL DUBLIN SOCIETY – COUNT PLUNKETT’S MEMBERSHIP, the Society announced its call on the member in question to consider his position:

The Council of the Royal Dublin Society [RDS] intend a meeting to bring forward a resolution calling upon Count Plunkett to resign his membership of the Society. Under the statutes of the Society, if a member fails to comply with such a resolution within fourteen days he ceased to be a member of the society.

Having delivered the message, the Freeman was moved to comment in an editorial on the same page:

We hold no brief for Count Plunkett, but common justice urges us to point out that not only has he never been tried upon any charge, but that no charge has even been preferred against him.

In a moment of panic he was ordered by the Government to remove his residence to England – he was not even interned – but nothing that any fair-minded man could regard as a trial was afforded him. Yet the “non-political” Royal Dublin Society now proposes to pass their sentence upon him.[1]

The newspaper felt strongly enough to reprint the story the following day, accompanied by some strongly-worded letters from its readers. One compared the RDS to the brutish Lieutenant Hepenstall who had helped crush the 1798 Rebellion with wanton torture. Another sarcastically wondered if Plunkett had been accused of pickpocketing in the Society’s reading-room or perhaps of stealing an umbrella. Because otherwise: “It seems atrocious to thus blacken a man’s character, without even mentioning the crime of which he is accused.”[2]

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Count George Noble Plunkett

Forced Resignation

Nonetheless, the RDS pressed on remorselessly with its brand of rough justice. Three hundred of its members arrived at a meeting in Leinster House on the 18th January, making it the largest of its gatherings in many a year. The determination of many of the attendees was evident, as several aged and almost infirm gentlemen pressed on despite needing to be helped out of their motorcars amidst the snow and slush of a winter’s day.

Mindful of the sensitivity of its event, the RDS Council did not admit any representatives from the press. But if they had assumed the meeting would pass by without fuss or challenge, then they had misread the mood of its members, many of whom believed the Count to be the aggrieved party. The excitement of the meeting spilled outwards as messages were hurriedly dispatched to the Kildare Street Club and nearby hotels to find participants who had not yet turned up, as the RDS ‘whips’ began seeking the reinforcements they had not expected to need.

The session inside the Leinster House was to total two hours. The recommendation of the RDS Council, that Plunkett be called upon to resign, was countered with a proposed amendment that the matter be referred back for a further report as to the nature of the charges against the Count, complete with the necessary evidence. Which was the fault-line in the Council’s case – the lack of explanation as to what Plunkett had actually done to merit such blackballing.

All the Chairman of the Council offered was a reminder of how the Count had been arrested and deported to England as a danger to the Realm, in addition to being dismissed from his post as Director of the National Museum. But when the dissenters in the hall clamoured for something more substantial, the Council had nothing to add.

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The Royal Dublin Society (front)

A Storm of Indignation

William Field, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin St Patrick’s, was one of those who spoke up for the absent Count, whose friendship he had known for many years.

George Plunkett, he said, was a gentleman who would never stoop to an unworthy action. If there had been any clear connections between him and the recent insurrection in their city, surely he would have been imprisoned in Frongoch Camp along with the hundreds of others, many of whom had subsequently been released for the lack of evidence in their own cases.

Yes, the three sons of the Count had been involved, with the eldest one executed as a consequence and the other two sentenced to penal servitude. But, Field argued, why single out the father for the deeds of the younger generation?

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William Field

Field finished on what would be a note more prescient than he could have guessed: he would leave the matter to public opinion, having no doubt that those supporting the amendment to save Plunkett from expulsion would be endorsed by the vast majority of Dublin citizens. It was emblematic of the role Count Plunkett would play later in the year – even without being present, he was a mascot for others’ sense of injustice and their need to respond.

Despite the vigorous defence mounted by Field and a handful of other stalwarts, the Council ended up having its way, and Plunkett was expelled by a vote of 236 to 58. At least the Count and his partisans could take solace in the sympathetic coverage by the Freeman, which guaranteed the story a wider audience than the internal complications of the RDS would normally enjoy.[3]

The Tipperary Board of Guardians, for one, was sufficiently moved to adopt a resolution condemning the “extremely bigoted action” of the RDS, predicting that a “storm of indignation” would occur, not only in Ireland, but throughout America and Australia as well.

As it turned out, while expecting those overseas to take much notice was a hope too far, the Guardians were not wrong in regards to the rest of the country.[4]

It was a sign of how drastically the Count’s circumstances would shift, and the mood of Ireland as a whole, that he and the RDS would be reconciled and he reinstated in 1921. “On that occasion,” to quote one historian, “the society displayed a shrewder sense of timing.”[5]

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The Royal Dublin Society (interior)

Unconventional

Meanwhile, plans were underway for an equally dramatic, though perhaps more important, contest in North Roscommon. Its long-time MP, James J. O’Kelly, had died in December after a lengthy illness. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was expected to replace its fallen member with another of its own, and made the first steps in this direction at its convention in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, on the 23rd January. Nominated there was Thomas J. Devine, a well-connected Roscommon native who had already served as a county councillor.

From the IPP’s point of view, Devine was a logical, if not terribly exciting, choice. The only hiccup at the event was the proposal by Father Michael O’Flanagan, the curate for nearby Crossna, that Count Plunkett be selected instead. When this was ruled out of order, the priest left the convention with a dozen other delegates.[6]

One has to wonder the course Irish history might have taken had the IPP agreed to field Plunkett after all, melding their constitutional approach with his connections to the Rising. After all, the Party could already claim its fair share of radicals in the past, such as the land agitator Michael Davitt and the late O’Kelly, a former Fenian.

But the IPP saw no need to try out novelties like running the elderly father of a rebel leader as one of its own. A generous observer might have concluded that the Irish Party was too intent on its hard-fought battle for Home Rule in the corridors of Westminster to be distracted. Critics would have dismissed it as hidebound.

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Cartoon of Count Plunkett

It was, admittedly, a peculiar attempt by Father O’Flanagan. As a Dublin-based art scholar and poet, Plunkett had not the slightest connection with Roscommon. He had dabbled in politics before in a series of brave attempts and doomed endeavours when he stood unsuccessfully for elections, once in Mid-Tyrone (during which he had been punched in the face by an angry mob) and twice in Dublin. He had stood by the side of Charles Stewart Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority stance which had required courage and a willingness to buck orthodoxy that even his friends were surprised by.[7]

But all that had been a long time ago. Yet O’Flanagan had come to the IPP convention with Plunkett in mind, having spoken in support of his man four days earlier at a meeting in Castlerea. What the curate saw in Plunkett, still in exile in England, was not obvious, and it was doubtful that the elderly intellectual would have crossed anyone’s mind if his ejection from the RDS had not been covered in-depth by the newspapers earlier that month. Which did not in itself seem to merit O’Flanagan’s praise of him as the only worthy candidate or the man who would best represent Ireland in the anticipated Peace Conference in Paris when the war in Europe was done.

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Laurence Ginnell

There had been no mention in Castlerea of any political parties or policies. Speaking alongside Father O’Flanagan was Laurence Ginnell, the MP for North Westmeath, but he was an Independent who had long been a renegade from mainstream Irish politics and his support did not indicate much in itself.

It was not until later that Plunkett was identified with Sinn Féin, where he was described as the party’s candidate by the Freeman in its edition for the 25th January. The candidate himself did not indicate any great desire to be associated with Sinn Féin, however. On his official nomination papers, submitted to the Boyle Courthouse on the 26th January on his behalf (he would not return to Ireland until the 31st), he was marked down as President of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy – two worthy, if distinctly non-political, posts.[8]

Having previously defended the Count’s honour against the RDS, the Freeman was obliged to move against him as the struggle for the North Roscommon by-election intensified. He was, after all, standing against the candidate for the IPP, the party for which the newspaper served as a mouthpiece.

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And so, under the headline COUNT PLUNKETT – WHAT IS HIS POLICY? – SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS, the newspaper laid out a series of questions in regard to Count Plunkett:

  • Was he a member of Sinn Féin or a supporter of its abstentionism policy? If elected, would he take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown as an MP?
  • Did he approve of the recent Rising in Dublin?
  • What policy did he propose to adopt in Westminster?
  • Did he intend to reapply for his former position as Director of the National Museum?

“It will be very interesting,” purred the Freeman, “to learn from him on what platform he stands in the contest, for so far no light whatever has been afforded on to the public on this subject.”[9]

‘An Amiable Old Whig’

The Freeman was not alone in wanting to prise open a chink in the Plunkett armour. Jaspar Tully became the third candidate in what was now a three-way contest for the North Roscommon seat. A local businessman and the former MP for South Leitrim, Tully owned, among other things, the Roscommon Herald. Needless to say, the interview questions that the newspaper posed to its proprietor were distinctly tame, if not prearranged with the candidate.

Nonetheless, the points Tully thought necessary to raise or counter told a good deal about how the Count was perceived, albeit by a rival:

Interviewer: I imagined it was claimed last week that Count Plunkett was the candidate of the Sinn Feiners?

Tully: So it was said in surreptitious whispers at the opening of the contest, but we succeeded in getting to the root of the intrigue, and we discovered that the Dublin Sinn Feiners – or Irish Volunteers as they should be more properly called – had nothing to do with putting forward the Count as candidate. It was the work of this Seven Attorneys League from Tyrone, who are placeholders and seekers of posts under the Government.

Interviewer: What impression did the Count make on his audiences?

Tully: Oh, the very worst. The poor old man was unable to be heard a yard away from where he was speaking, and his mumbled platitudes were quite unintelligible to the people.

Interviewer: I thought he was to represent Ireland at the Peace Conference?

Tully: He could not represent Ireland at even a District Council meeting, as the members would so tire of him that they would not listen to him for half an hour. An amiable old Whig is a correct description of the Count. Then the fact that was brought to light that in the days in which he said he had a nodding acquaintance with Parnell and Davitt, he was touting the Tory Government for the post of Resident Magistrate throws a keen light on the class of man he is.

Interviewer: But then his son was shot by orders of Sir John Maxwell’s courtmartial?

Tully: Quite so; we all have the deepest reverence for the sacrifice he made, but I fail to see how the devotion of the son can change a Tory father into something he never was.

To illustrate his point, the candidate quoted a line that had been bandied about in Roscommon during the Land League days: ‘Many a good son reared a bad father.’

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

“As Count Plunkett’s party are trading altogether on this question of the poor boy that died,” Tully continued, referring to the executed Joseph Mary Plunkett, “it should be known widely that so did the father and son differ long before Easter Week that the son did not live with him and had to live in a place for himself.[10]

There was much more of a similar sort throughout the Herald in its lead up to polling day. As an Independent, Tully was also competing against the IPP runner. The fact that Tully focused the bulk of his personal jabs against Plunkett and not Devine made for a backhanded compliment, a salute to the danger that the “poor old man” was perceived to truly be.

Count Cypher

Much of Tully’s attacks could be dismissed as part of the electioneering game. After all, while Joseph did indeed leave the family house at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the rest of Plunketts, including his father, proceeded to move in with him on their property in Larkfield. As for the Count’s supposed inability to articulate, Tully and his pet newspaper had been the only ones to suggest such a thing.

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

(The journalist M. J. MacManus, who heard Count Plunkett speak at the by-election, remembered his “level, cultured tones.” While it was perhaps “the voice of a man who was more used to addressing the members of a learned society than to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings,” Plunkett seemed to manage his share of the public oratory well enough.[11])

Yet both the Freeman and Tully had, in their different styles, touched upon a sensitive question for the Plunkett campaign: that of abstentionism. While Sinn Féin was canvassing for the Count in North Roscommon, so too were others, including the Irish Nation League – the ‘Seven Attorneys League’ mentioned by Tully – an anti-Partition group formed recently in Ulster. The former organisation opposed taking seats in Westminster, while the latter did not. So where, between them, did the Count stand?

As well as Plunkett’s commitments to Sinn Féin, it was also questioned how committed was Sinn Féin to him. According to Laurence Nugent, a worker during the campaign, the party not only refused to support the Count at first but did everything it could to stop him from standing.[12]

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Arthur Grffith

Another election activist, Kevin O’Shiel, told of a more nuanced reaction by Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin’s founder. To any who asked, Griffith’s response was: “If Plunkett goes for Roscommon, all nationalists should support him.” In private, however, Griffith was distinctly cool towards a candidate he knew so little about.[13]

This uncertainty permeated the rest of Griffith’s organisation. Seamus Ua Caomhanaigh was an accountant on the Sinn Féin Executive when a man named Gallagher called in to see him in Dublin. Count Plunkett’s name had just appeared in the papers in connection with the by-election, and Gallagher, a native of Roscommon, wished to ensure that the candidate was “all right from the Sinn Féin point of view” before granting his support. Ua Caomhanaigh replied that, as far as he knew, the Count was indeed alright but first he would have to seek clarification from party headquarters.[14]

Others were quick to grasp the potential of the Count as political horseflesh. The trade unionist William O’Brien was talking with P.T. Keoghane, managing director of Gill Publishers, who he knew from the board of the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Funds. The conversation took place in early January, before Plunkett’s candidacy became common knowledge:

Keoghane: What do you think about fighting North Roscommon?

O’Brien: Well, there are enough obstacles.

Keoghane: What are they?

O’Brien: Well, in the first place, money. I don’t know anybody who has any.

Keoghane: Apart from money, what are the objections?

O’Brien: Well, you want a suitable candidate and you want a programme.

Keoghane: As regards a candidate, what would you say to Count Plunkett?

O’Brien: I think he would be excellent because he would not require any programme. All you need do is introduce him as the father of Joseph Plunkett, who was executed in Easter Week.

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William O’Brien

O’Brien had first met Count Plunkett inside Richmond Barracks following the collapse of the Rising. Both men had played supporting roles in the build-up to the insurrection and were subsequently detained (O’Brien was not released until August 1916). Despite their shared experience, O’Brien did not think of the Count as much of a Nationalist, which did not stop him from approving of the other man as a candidate.

His account of the conversation with Keoghane – perhaps written with the benefit of hindsight – neatly captured the central plank of the Plunkett campaign: who the candidate was being less important than what he represented in a post-1916 Ireland.[15]

This is Going to Cost Money

While others sought to make sense of what was happening, Nugent had proceeded from Dublin to North Roscommon. Besides Nugent’s own lack of experience, the challenges he found were formidable: there was barely any organisation on behalf of the Count, and what funds there were had been donated by friends of Father O’Flanagan to help cover the curate’s expenses.

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Rory O’Connor

Nugent had discussed the matter at length with Rory O’Connor, a close ally of Plunkett’s, but the only advice O’Connor could give was “Do what you think is right.” The few forlorn Plunkettites Nugent met in the local Sinn Féin circles knew all too well that they could not expect any assistance from the rest of their party. They had not even known that Nugent was coming.[16]

Meanwhile, having heard no more about North Roscommon, O’Brien assumed the election was going well. He was, in any case, busy with his work for the Dublin Trades Council, of which he was secretary. At one of its meetings, he was taken aside by the vice-president, Thomas Farren, and introduced to Kitty O’Doherty, wife of the Plunkettite director of elections. She broke the troubling news that the campaign was at the point of collapse. While they had plenty of helping hands from the Roscommon youth, none of them knew what they were supposed to be doing.

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Count Plunkett

Stirred into action, O’Brien and Farren went straight to the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street. When they saw him, he had no collar or tie on, and was in the process of undressing when his visitors came. O’Brien relayed what he had just been told, not that Plunkett seemed very interested.

(O’Brien was unaware, but the Count had only just returned from his English exile, having ignored his probation to stay in Oxford. Tiredness would explain his apparent apathy.)

Plunkett did, at least, ask what should be done. O’Brien suggested sending out to Roscommon a couple of experienced workers from Dublin. The Count seemed to perk up at this:

Plunkett: Do you think these men could be got?

O’Brien: I do not know for sure, but I think so. Do you authorise me to see them?

Plunkett: Yes, certainly.

At this point, Farren nudged O’Brien and made a point of asking if he had any money. The Count took the hint:

Plunkett: Well, who is going to pay for all this?

O’Brien: Count, this is going to cost money.

Plunkett: All I have is £5, you can have it.

O’Brien: Very well, I will take it.

O’Brien thought Plunkett had been anticipating the question, for he took out the aforementioned fiver from his pocket and handed it over. Having only just come back from banishment would also explain the Count’s shortage of ready cash.[17]

Blood from the Lips

For all the doubts and confusion, the nominations of the three candidates on the 26th January had made Plunkett’s standing at least official. Four days later, an appeal for motorcars to assist in the canvassing was issued from the Plunkett residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street. The Count would not return home from England until the following day on the 31st, so the appeal was probably made by O’Connor, who was using the house for his own work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers.

The deep snow in North Roscommon made travelling a challenge but the summoned cars got there all the same, giving the Plunkettites a small fleet of vehicles to match the IPP’s own. The campaign was starting to take shape.

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Boyle, Co. Roscommon, in the blizzard of 1947

Nugent’s wife arrived on the 31st January, a day before the Count was due in North Roscommon. She relayed a message from O’Connor, giving her husband their candidate’s itinerary, as well as instructions to meet the Count at Dromod Station, in Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon.

When Nugent did so, he explained to Plunkett the progress of his campaign, stressing “upon him the certainty of victory. [Plunkett] was rather bewildered as it was not easy to believe these statements unless one saw it for themselves.”

The Count was able to see it for himself when he continued to his last stop at Carrick-on-Shannon station, where he was greeted a huge crowd. These well-wishers formed a procession to accompany him across the bridge into Roscommon, where Father O’Flanagan was waiting.

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

Despite days of speaking in the icy cold, the priest remained unflinching, even when his lips broke and blood flowed freely down his jaw as he addressed the crowd. Count Plunkett spoke next in those level, cultured tones of his and, while he could not compete with a practised demagogue like O’Flanagan, he made, in Nugent’s estimate, “a great impression on his listeners.” By the time the rally was done, the previously befuddled candidate had been infused with a new sense of purpose.[18]

‘Up Roscommon!’

However much of an enigma the Count presented to friend and foe alike, that did not prevent the electorate of North Roscommon from voting him in by a landslide. Stationed at the polling booth in Rooskey, Nugent saw men vying with each other for the honour of being the first to cast a vote for Plunkett. They joked that as Roscommon had seen no action during Easter Week, they would make up for it by firing their ‘shot’ into the ballot box.[19]

Monsignor Michael J. Curran, secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin and a keen observer of Irish politics, recorded in his diary at the time:

Rarely has there been so much excitement over an election result. Count Plunkett started at the eleventh hour with little local backing…Though his supporters had hopes of his success, they never for a moment dreamed of such a resounding victory.

Up to Saturday, the Irish Party believed that they were winning. The news of the success astounded and delighted the ‘man in the street’…Count Plunkett’s success was entirely due to his own banishment, to the memory of his son, Joseph, and the imprisonment of two others.[20]

plunkett“Doubtless, too,” the Monsignor added wryly, “he was helped by his expulsion from the Royal Dublin Society.” Curran, like O’Brien, clearly did not attribute Plunkett’s victory to his own qualities. Perceptively, Curran also made note of how the issue of an Irish republic, as distinct from straightforward independence, was absent during the election.

(This omission – or flexibility, depending on one’s perspective – would be cited by none other than Michael Collins, one of the many young Turks who would cut their teeth working on the Plunkett campaign. A few years later, in the course of the Civil War, Collins was to argue that the example of North Roscommon proved how “absence of key principles was not incompatible with the strength of national feeling.”[21])

Count Plunkett returned to a hero’s welcome in Dublin on the 6th February, three days after his stunning victory. A large crowd had been waiting at Broadstone Station and cheered upon the arrival of his train, with hearty cries of “Up Roscommon!” and “Up the rebels!”

Upon disembarking, the Count was carried out of the station on the shoulders of his supporters to where a crowd – estimated by the Irish Times to be in the thousands – had assembled with much singing, cheering and shouting. Plunkett obliged the onlookers with a short address which was frequently applauded. When that was done, the people accompanied their hero as he was driven in a taxi-cab through the city centre, albeit slowly amongst the press of bodies, to his stop at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.

Plunkett had only just entered the building when the apparently insatiable masses outside called for another speech. In response, the newly-minted MP appeared at a window on the first floor. As a tricolour was waved beside the Count in a suitably dramatic fashion, he indulged his adoring followers.

An Alternative Parliament for a Free People

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

He had come back, he told them, with a message for the city. A blow had been struck for Ireland and he would ask his fellow citizens, many of whom would recall his efforts to be elected for St Stephen’s Ward some twenty years ago – though it was questionable as to how many actually did remember an event two decades past – to ensure that their public representatives would no longer be beholden by the false need to wait upon an alien parliament in Westminster.

When he had travelled down to Roscommon, his chances of success had seemed very slim, indeed. A local man there who owned a newspaper – Plunkett did not deign to name Tully who had so insulted him – had had it said that he, Count Plunkett, was a feeble old man with no work left to give for Ireland. As for the other losing candidate, a very respectable townsman of whom Plunkett would never say anything unkind, he had had behind him the full machinery of the Irish Party. What had been the result?

“You are in,” answered a voice from the crowd below to appreciative cheers.

Roscommon had arisen, the Count continued, and had swept his opponents away. Irishmen should see that in the future their leaders would be the soul of the nation. For that to happen, it was necessary to carry on with the work already begun until the whole of Ireland’s representatives were pledged to serve in Ireland and nowhere else; until, indeed, enough men were elected to form an alternative parliament for a free people. And at this, Plunkett finally withdrew into his house for some well-deserved rest.[22]

The Sinn Féin Candidate?

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‘The Resurrection by Hungary’ by Arthur Griffith (1904)

All this talk of abstaining from Westminster in favour of an Irish counter-parliament was straight out of the Sinn Féin playbook. Griffith had long expounded upon the need for such an assembly, one wholly divorced from any foreign system.

Plunkett was something of a late convert to this ideal. There is certainly nothing in his history to suggest he had been anything other than a conventional parliamentarian. His election director in Roscommon went as far as to interview him beforehand to ensure he was standing on an abstentionism platform but others in the Sinn Féin camp were not so convinced that Plunkett was one of them even while they campaigned on his behalf.[23]

Either way, the Count quickly made his mind known. In North Roscommon, he had announced in his acceptance speech that he would not be taking his seat in the House of Commons, causing “a mild form of consternation” amongst those who had only just voted for him and were not expecting their new MP to be quite so…different to the usual. Any doubts as to what he had said were cleared up when he arrived back to Dublin and spoke to the crowd outside his home.[24]

At no point did Plunkett acknowledge Griffith as the originator of the abstentionism policy. To hear the Count talk, one would have thought he had come up with the stance entirely on his own volition.

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

 

Sources

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1917

[2] Ibid, 16/01/1917

[3] Ibid, 19/01/1917

[4] Ibid, 22/01/1917

[5] Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 79

[6] FJ, 23/01/1917

[7] Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992), p. 13 ; Tynan, Katharine, Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913), p. 383

[8] FJ, 27/01/1917

[9] Ibid, 01/02/1917

[10] Roscommon Herald, 03/02/2017

[11] Irish Press, 15/03/1948

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), p. 67

[13] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 28-9

[14] Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus (BMH / WS 889), p. 116

[15] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 124, 139-40

[16] Nugent, p. 70

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 141

[18] Nugent, pp. 72-4

[19] Ibid, p. 76

[20] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 199-200

[21] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 40

[22] Irish Times, 07/02/1917

[23] O’Doherty, Kitty (BMH / WS 355), p. 37 ;  O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 120

[24] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1917

 

Bibliography

Books

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992)

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

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913)

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Roscommon Herald

Bureau of Military History Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Doherty, Kitty, WS 355

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus, WS 889

Twenty Years a Republican: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1919-1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: A Prominent Republican Leader: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1913-1919 (Part I)

The Men Behind the Men

Imprisonment barely slowed McGarry down. After his release in December 1916 as part of the general amnesty, he was hard at work again with the resurgent republican cause, the immediate goal being to ensure the IRB and the Irish Volunteers remained joined at the hip, and the former in charge.

Which was simple enough: in October 1917, candidates doubling as IRB initiates gained all the seats on the Volunteer Executive at the latter’s Convention, with McGarry as General Secretary and an up-and-coming Michael Collins as Director of Organisation (Collins was first nominated as Secretary but withdrew in favour of the other man).[1]

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Seán McGarry (right) and Michael Collins (centre)

While the movement was in robust health and McGarry’s role in it a prominent one, he did not always get his own way. In mid-1917, the topic of conversation at Fleming’s Hotel, Gardiner Place, was the impending bye-election in Clare, where Éamon de Valera was planning to contest as a Sinn Féin candidate. Although not strictly an IRB meeting, most of those present in Fleming’s were members.

McGarry protested against the possibility of Eoin MacNeill’s involvement in the election, considering him persona non grata for his attempts to countermand the Rising (he was equally pitiless with another miscreant who had tried to interfere, writing to the disgraced Bulmer Hobson in March 1918 on behalf of the Volunteer Executive for him to return any monies or properties belonging to the Volunteers and submit himself for court-martial).[2]

McGarry was overruled by de Valera, however, who threatened to boycott his own campaign if MacNeill was not permitted.[3]

The two men could not have had more divergent opinions. De Valera had joined the IRB shortly before the Easter Rising upon learning to his shock that his Brotherhood-connected subordinates knew more about the plans for the rebellion than he did. He left soon afterwards and would nurse a distaste for the fraternity.[4]

“Curse secret societies,” de Valera wrote later, adding that he had been tempted several times to take “drastic action” against the IRB but held off for fear of the turmoil that might cause.[5]

A Question of Authority

Sometime before the polling day in Clare, another gathering was held in Limerick by IRB luminaries such as Austin Stack, Seán Ó Muirthile, Thomas Ashe, Ernest Blythe as well as McGarry. Stack asked the others why they were not at their posts in Clare in accordance with their candidate’s orders.

“Who gave de Valera authority to order us about?” McGarry groused. The remark triggered an impromptu discussion on whether or not it was appropriate for the Brotherhood to be involved in political matters. It was the last sort of question that a secret society like the IRB would want aired.

In the end, the others obligingly departed for Clare to assist de Valera except McGarry who made his way back to Dublin in a huff. If McGarry had thought that the new politicians were going to be at the IRB’s beck and call, then he was sorely behind the times.[6]

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Éamon de Valera

Given the tension between McGarry and de Valera, it was only fitting that the two men should be thrown together when they were arrested and deported to England in May 1918 along with others as part of the supposed ‘German Plot’. Michael Collins had been on his way to warn McGarry of the impending arrests but arrived too late (a practical man, Collins then stayed the night at McGarry’s house, reasoning that the authorities would be unlikely to return to a place they had already raided).[7]

McGarry had by then risen to become President of the IRB Supreme Council. The historian Leon Ó Broin could not resist noting how two presidents of the Irish Republic had been imprisoned together in Lincoln Prison, de Valera of Dáil Éireann and McGarry due to the IRB constitution proclaiming its head to be de facto that of the Republic (although this is perhaps not an idea that stands up to serious scrutiny).[8]

A Man’s Work, Done by Men

Confinement did not hold either man for long. In the weeks following the well-publicised escape, in February 1919, of McGarry, de Valera and a third man, Seán Milroy, from Lincoln Prison, Harry Boland felt the need to rebut some of the stories that had been circulating.

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Harry Boland

Speaking to the Evening Herald in his role as Honorary Secretary of the Sinn Féin Executive, Boland dismissed the existence of the ‘Ultra-Irish Society’, a thinly-veiled depiction of Sinn Féin, which was supposedly behind the jailbreak. What particularly jarred him was the rumour that girls had been brought over from Ireland to flirt with the English gaolers as a honeypot distraction.

“We have too much respect for our Irish girls to subject them to such humiliation,” Boland harrumphed. “President de Valera’s rescue was a man’s work and was done by men.”[9]

The real story behind the escape was surreal enough without the need for femme fatale colleens. Michael Lynch, a Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin and a friend of McGarry’s, was visited by Tomasina McGarry, some eight or nine months after her husband was deported.

She had received from him a most puzzling postcard with two pencil sketches of a man whose thin, bespectacled face bore more than a passing resemblance to her husband’s. In one of the cartoons, the gentleman was trying vainly to open a door with a comically oversized key. Beneath, it read: 1917 – can’t get in.The second sketch showed the now despondent fellow sitting in cell before an also-comically oversized keyhole, with the words: 1918 – can’t get out.

“Did you show this to Michel Collins?” asked Lynch, according to his recollections.

“No. Why should I?” she replied.

“I think you had better.”

Collins lost his temper when shown the  card, demanding to know why the hell Tomasina had kept it to herself for so long. It turned out that the cartoons were a coded message from the prisoners in Lincoln Prison, covertly asking for a key to be sent over.[10]

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The coded postcard depicting Seán McGarry, from Dunne, Declan. Peters Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Escape

Tomasina McGarry could be forgiven for not knowing a code she had not been privy to, especially how mystified everyone else was.

The card had been initially sent to a sympathetic priest in Leeds, minus any actual instructions on what to do with it. The padre took the items to Liam McMahon, a senior member of the IRB in Manchester, but the latter was equally stumped. McMahon at least had the inkling that the card was supposed to convey something, so it was forwarded to Dublin, where it ended up in the possession of Tomasina, although that was not the end of the confusion, as McMahon put it:

I believe they had the same difficulty in Dublin in trying to find anything in them.  Eventually, I think Collins tumbled to the fact that there was something in them.[11]

That something was a request from the prisoners for a key. Several were made, based on the drawing in the postcard, and smuggled into Lincoln Prison via cakes (one baked by McMahon’s wife). None of these keys, however, fitted the locks.

Finally, one of the prisoners, Peter de Loughry, was able to duplicate one by unscrewing the lock off the door of the common-room where the inmates were allowed to be unsupervised every afternoon. A skilled craftsman, de Loughry was able to work steadily on his project every day before the lock would be reinserted into the door in time for the guards’ return.

McGarry would wonder at how they ever got away with it, considering how every time the lock was removed from the door its hole was gradually widened until it was ready to fall out. But got away with it they did.

Meanwhile, the rescue team, including Collins and Boland, had come over to England where they were using McMahon’s house in Manchester to plan the operation. McMahon was assigned to secure a taxi and wait with it in Sheffield on the appointed day of the 3rd February. Collins and Boland journeyed to Lincoln Prison with a spare copy of the key de Loughry had made in case anything went amiss – which, in obedience to Murphy’s Law, it did.

The two rescuers approached the door in the prison wall, near the courtyard on the other side where de Valera, McGarry and Milroy were due to come. Collins and Boland waited by the door for a tense while until they heard the muffled sounds of footsteps from the inside. After ascertaining that they had the right men, Collins put his key in the lock and gave it a sharp turn.

The key, much to everyone’s horror, promptly snapped.

Before anyone could panic, de Valera saved the situation by producing his own spare copy which he inserted into the lock, pushing out the broken one. The door swung open and the three absconders padded out in their canvas slippers which they had worn to deaden the noise. Looking back, McGarry was to rue not locking the door behind them for added effect, as that would have made their escape all the more mystifying.[12]

In Sheffield, McMahon was waiting impatiently in his taxi, with frequent glances at his watch, when de Valera, McGarry and Milroy made their appearance. As McMahon drove the three runaways to Manchester, McGarry talked about all the possible ways they could get to Dublin.

In a sign that their time spent locked up together may not have been an easy one, de Valera turned to McGarry and said, in McMahon’s recollections: “Don’t you think the men outside have done very well so far? Why not leave it to them to do the rest?”

That was the end of the chatter, much to McMahon’s relief. His part completed, McMahon last saw McGarry on his way to the train station for Liverpool disguised as a bookie.[13]

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Harry Boland (left), Michael Collins (centre) and Éamon de Valera (right)

The Return Home

McGarry’s return to Dublin was a discreet one without fanfare or fuss. He was able to hide at Lynch’s house on Richmond Road after Collins had dropped by the day before to let the family know the fugitive was coming. Collins did not seem to ask for permission, but Lynch, as a member of the Irish Volunteers, could hardly refuse sanctuary to a fellow freedom-fighter.

What could have been a strained situation in the house, particularly with McGarry unable to step outside for fear of recognition, was elevated by his general good humour. He was fond of jokes and stories, according to Lynch, and was fortunate enough to befriend Lynch’s new wife, who was not above adding to the humour by pranking her guest.

Noting a habit of McGarry’s to overuse the firepoker – at least ten times within half an hour in one sitting – Mrs Lynch sneakily applied a liberal amount of polish to the handle. She then waited as the unsuspecting target prodded at the fireplace as per habit while absentmindedly rubbing his face. Confused as to the gales of laughter from the rest of the household, it was not until he stood up and looked in the mirror that he saw the blackness smeared all over his features.

The victim was not amused, as told by Lynch, somewhat belying what he said about McGarry’s constant geniality: “He chased my wife round and round the table. She saved herself by running down the garden, and all Seán could do was stand at the kitchen door and curse.”

It was not all ‘fun’ and games. Tomasina was unable to see her husband lest she bring unwanted attention. The nearest thing to contact McGarry could have with his three children – Emmet, Sadie and Desmond – was for them to be taken by the family maid for a walk every afternoon, if the weather permitted, to Richmond Road, from where McGarry could peer out for a glimpse of them. However unsatisfying, it was the most he could have.

After first consulting with Collins, it was agreed that enough time had passed for Tomasina to come over. One day, she brought their son, Emmet, who, at the age of three, had only vague memories of his long-absent father. He had been told beforehand they were visiting the doctor and was none the wiser during the course of the surreptitious reunion, until:

[Emmet] crept up on his daddy’s knee, and he told us all, in his little innocent way, that he was a very nice doctor. Then, suddenly, recognition, came into the little kid’s eyes. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and cried out, “You are my daddy!”. It was the most moving scene I ever remember, not only for Seán, but the whole lot of us felt the tears in our eyes.

A chip off the old block at keeping secrets, little Emmet kept his visitations to his father to himself. His twin sister, Sadie, was also brought to the Lynch house; that way, the McGarrys were able to maintain some semblance of overdue family life.[14]

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Seán McGarry

The War Continues

It was almost a month after the jailbreak when Collins had the idea of publicly unveiling McGarry, the chose venue being a public concert at the Mansion House. Posters advertised the presence of a “prominent Republican leader” who would be speaking at the concert but no names or further details were given until the evening of the concert on the 4th March when McGarry marched on stage in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. After a brief speech, the returned hero was bundled out of the building and driven away before the nearby policemen could interfere.[15]

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Seán McGarry in crowd

By now a public figure, McGarry entered the arena of politics on behalf of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party. He was already a councillor in Dublin Corporation, having been introduced as such by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House concert. The Corporation had met for a special session a month earlier, in February 1919, to replace a recently departed member. As per the rules, the replacement could be selected by the party of the deceased – in this case the beleaguered Irish Parliamentary Party – but the nominee withdrew in favour of Sinn Féin’s McGarry.

It was a sign of the times that, in the words of historian Pádraig Yeates:

The fact that he was on the run…and that this might hamper him in the discharging his duties as a public representative, does not appear to have been considered an impediment.[16]

Come the start of 1920, McGarry ran as a candidate for alderman in Dublin Corporation, and later as a TD for Dublin Mid in the 1922 general elections, winning both times on a Sinn Féin ticket.[17] It is unclear if he entered politics on his own volition or due to instructions but given his essentially passive nature, the latter seems most likely.

His newfound public role carried its own set of dangers as McGarry, still a man on the run, was obliged to attend council meetings. In December 1922, armed Auxiliaries intruded upon one such session of Dublin Corporation. All those present were questioned, resulting in six of them being taken away in custody.

The officer in charge had called out the list of names present in the roll book. When he came to McGarry, a voice responded: “Not here.” At the same time, Margaret McGarry, another Sinn Féin member of the Council and no relation, remarked: “My name is McGarry, perhaps it is me?”

Whether meant in jest or confusion, she was quickly told to shush by the Lord Mayor. When the Auxiliaries left, it was without McGarry among their catch of prisoners, either because he had left the room in time or had been able to remain undetected inside.[18]

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British soldiers and civilians in Ireland

Out of Sight

For the most part, however, McGarry drops out of the historian’s view during the months of the War of Independence. His reticence in revealing too much, either to the Bureau of Military History (preferring to dwell more on his mentor, Tom Clarke, than on himself) or the Military Pensions Board (where he was already assured of a pension, having been in the National Army as a captain during the Civil War), means that it is hard to reconstruct his activities in any great depth.

It is not even clear if he stayed on in Lynch’s house after being ‘outed’ in the Mansion House or if he moved elsewhere. His entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography describes him as being “captain in the IRA Dublin Brigade throughout the war of independence” but no other source supports this.[19]

While imprisoned in Lincoln, he had been replaced as President of the IRB Supreme Council by Harry Boland, and later Collins.[20] A follower rather than a leader, McGarry made no effort to regain his presidency, seemingly content to leave it to Collins. McGarry would serve his successor as he had previously done for Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott.

As part of this, McGarry was sent to Britain sometime in April/May 1921 to touch base with the few isolated Volunteers and the remnants of the IRB there. According to one of those he talked to, the fight for freedom was nearly at the end of its tether in Ireland. If the cause was to be abandoned until the next generation were ready to resume, then the Brotherhood would best be reorganised among the young. [21] His efforts did not result in any great success. However, the British-based IRB was too much in disarray, and “Sean gave up in despair.”[22]

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Seán McGarry, mugshot

Speaking to a journalist in 1955, de Valera recalled how McGarry, “whom he did not think much of,” called to see him one day in December 1920 “and spoke to him on authority about should be done,” presumably about the ongoing war with Britain. McGarry had apparently been so circumspect that de Valera did not even realise that his guest had come on behalf of the IRB. De Valera assumed that the other man had come in a private capacity and was “merely…talking big to impress.”

It was only after his visitor was gone that de Valera remembered that he was in the IRB, although the former’s information was out of date as he assumed that McGarry was still its president. Historian Tim Pat Coogan commented that McGarry “was more likely the Brotherhood’s Secretary and certainly a member of the Supreme Council.”[23]

Actually, it is not certain at all if McGarry was still on the Supreme Council or, if not, when he had stopped being so. He was absent at a critical meeting of the IRB Supreme Council – called to discuss the Treaty crisis – on the 19th April 1922, despite the presence there of Michael Collins, Seán Ó Muirthile and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who had each played a role in ‘unveiling’ him at the Mansion House three years ago.[24]

Michael Collins

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Michael Collins in military uniform

McGarry remained close to Collins, holding a place in the other man’s affections as a living totem of the recent past. During the course of his interviews with the American journalist Hayden Talbot, between December 1921 and the following August, Collins complimented McGarry as “the one man who was closer in the confidence of the leaders of the rising than any other man today” – high praise, indeed, considering the hallowed status of said leaders.

Collins was keen for Talbot to meet McGarry for him to give the inside scoop on the Easter Rising and the Howth Gunrunning, both of which he had been intimately involved. The first scheduled meeting fell through due to the Civil War making the streets of Dublin too dangerous for McGarry to travel through. He was able to make it at the next one on the 2nd August 1922, and dutifully relayed to Talbot what he knew while Collins looked on.

McGarry was the very image of the deferential subordinate, at one point glancing at his Commander-in-Chief for advice on how to answer Talbot’s latest question. Collins did not always reciprocate the courtesy. Thinking that the interview had gone on for too long and it was his turn to speak, he brusquely interrupted McGarry, who took the cue and dutifully left for the night.[25]

Tomasina McGarry

In contrast to the relative obscurity of McGarry’s wartime activities, his wife’s are much more accessible. Lacking the military rank of her husband with its guarantee of a pension, Tomasina McGarry was obliged to be more forthcoming in her application to the Military Pensions Board.

In her typed statement in 1945, she told of how during Easter Week 1916 she had delivered letters that her sister had carried from the GPO. Service in the War of Independence in Dublin included her acting as a go-between for Collins and his moles within the DMP. One conveniently lived next door to her and was able to pass on warnings of impending police raids nine or ten times.

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Women from Cumann na mBan

Otherwise, her duties were small and infrequent but essential to the smooth maintenance of an underground army, such as finding accommodation for Volunteers when needed, allowing weapons to be stored at her house or, on one occasion, passing on two revolvers purchased by her sister from an enterprising Black-and-Tan.[26]

Tomisina had an impressive list of references. Richard Mulcahy confirmed to the Board that:

She was a close confidante of Michael Collins, and throughout the whole of the post-1916 period of military activity was closely connected with his personal intelligence work. He made a complete use of her services and of her home, for that work, and her services made a considerable contribution to his personal safety.[27]

Others agreed. Gearoíd O’Sullivan described her as “a great one in efficiency and thoroughness,” and how she had stored for Collins papers relating to IRB funding. Leo Henderson told of how she had “rendered great service to the men of the movement; a confidante, conveying messages,” and confirmed a story of him retrieving a gun from its hiding place in her kettle at home (unfortunately, Tomisina was found by the Board to be illegible for a pension).[28]

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Letter from Richard Mulcahy to the Pension Board, verifying Tomasina McGarry’s role in the War of Independence

The Dáil Debates

As a TD, McGarry was entitled to contribute to the debates in the Dáil over whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Speaking on the 3rd January 1922, he began by promising to make a record for brevity. According to some journalists who were present, “he didn’t, but he went so near that we forgave him.”[29]

Considering the not-inconsiderate length of his speech as it appears on the printed page, including interjections by others and his comebacks, all of which apparently took just ten minutes, it can summarised that McGarry spoke very quickly indeed.

With this soon-to-be-broken promise made, he wasted no time in making his choice clear. He supported the ratification of the Treaty with no apology. Shifting from a defensive stance to an offensive one, he proclaimed that he did not wait until he was a member of the present Dáil before becoming a Republican (unlike, presumably, others in the room, though he left any names unstated).

He had worked in the Republican movement for twenty years. He was a Republican that day and he would be a Republican the next, and, as such, he would be voting for the Treaty as it stood:

For that I do not need the opinion of a constitutional lawyer or a constitutional layman or a Webster’s Dictionary or a Bible to tell me what it means. I put on it the interpretation of the ordinary plain man who means what he says. I am not looking for any other interpretation from Webster’s Dictionary or anywhere else. I know what the Treaty means, and the man in the street knows what it means.[30]

This display of impatient insistence could be attributed to the effects of having to listen to – as historian Jason K. Knirck puts it – the previous, seemingly “endless speeches, many of which seemed overly abstract and theoretical.”[31]

McGarry was not the only one to display abstraction fatigue. Speaking on the following day, James Murphy, TD for Louth-Meath, opened with an admission that “not being a constitutional lawyer I do not possess the art of saying nothing in a great many words. Consequently I can relieve the House by assuring it that I will be very brief” (unlike McGarry, Murphy was true to his promise). Shortly afterwards, James Burke, TD for Tipperary Mid, assured his audience, that despite being a lawyer, he was not going to “indulge in a long and laboured dissertation on constitutional law.”[32]

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The second Dail in the Mansion House, August 1921

Fencing in the Dáil

Lambasting the naivety of those who had had inflated expectations of what the London talks could achieve, he asked: “What did we think we were sending to Downing Street for? Did any of us think we were going to get an Irish Republic in Downing Street?”

To this, the ardently anti-Treaty Mary MacSwiney piped up: “Of course you could.”

“A Downing Street Republic?” McGarry said incredulously, prompting laughter from the room.

MacSwiney held her ground. “No, a Downing Street withdrawal from Ireland.”

“Downing Street are withdrawing from Ireland.”

“No, they are not.”

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Mary MacSwiney

Stalemated, McGarry switched on to another tactic: mockery, directed towards the apparent inconsistency in the form of Document No. 2. The brainchild of Éamon de Valera, Document No. 2 was intended as a bridge between the two factions as a slightly rewritten version of the Irish stance during the London talks, with the inclusion of the more acceptable elements of the Treaty to round it off as a compromise.

While it was to be praised by many historians as a “powerful, sophisticated piece of political thought”, the apparent climb-down from a steadfast Republic-and-nothing-but-the-Republic line to a far less glamorous-sounding alternative made the Document an easy target for McGarry to home in on:[33]

Several Deputies protested very strongly and very loudly that they were standing on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. A week before they were standing on the slippery slopes—to borrow a phrase of the Minister of Finance—the slippery slopes of Document No. 2. Document No. 2 was pulled from under their feet and landed them with what must have been an awful jerk on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. They will be standing on that until the proper time—I mean the time when Document No. 2, or perhaps Document No. 3 will be given to us.[34]

“You can have it immediately if you like, whatever your side agrees,” de Valera retorted in a fairly nonsensical comeback which made it sound as if he actually had a Document No. 3 at hand, but probably said in the heat of the moment.

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Éamon de Valera

McGarry again did not linger, moving onto a different subject and another chink in the Anti-Treatyites’ armour; in this case, their lack of popular support:

There has been theorising in some of the speeches made here by Deputies about Government by the consent of the governed—self-determination. You can have government in Ireland to-day by consent of the governed with this Treaty. You can have self-extermination without it; but you cannot have war without the consent of the Irish people. And the only reason you carried on war for the last two years was because you had the consent of the people.[35]

McGarry accused the opposition of gambling with their belief that for all the talk of resuming the War, they would not have to actually do so. He admitted that he had indulged in a bit of gambling before but, he added wryly, never on a certainty that did not end up leaving him poorer.

To laughter and cries of “hear, hear”, he followed up his punchline with a stinger: “They are quite right, they are not going back to war; they are going back to destruction.”

McGarry finished with a pair of dark quips, the first a quote from the 19th century English writer Charles Lamb about the Chinese man who burnt down his home to roast a pig. The second was a Biblical allusion: “It was Samson who pulled down the pillars of the Temple. That was his funeral. I do not want to attend the funeral of the Irish nation.”[36]

It was on these eerily prescient citations – for him as well as for the country as a whole – that McGarry finished his contribution. It had been a rather ungainly series of points strung together, rather than a smooth narrative with a fixed beginning, middle and end. McGarry may have revealed his weaknesses as an orator that day, but his arguments had at least been impassioned and direct, making it one of the few times this otherwise reticent man expressed himself in public so forcefully.

The Civil War Breaks

McGarry could be pointed in his rhetoric but he was without rancour himself. On the 11th January, he felt the need to write to the Irish Independent in response to a letter published four days earlier from a Margaret McGarry. Her surname had led others to assume they were related. It was a misunderstanding Seán was keen to correct due to her choice of words: “I should be sorry that any relative of mine should refer to Mr. de Valera in the terms contained in the last paragraph of that letter.”[37]

There may have been little love lost between the two alumni of Lincoln Prison but standards had still to be maintained.

McGarry attended the Dáil session on the 9th September 1922, the first since the Treaty split, and added a dash of the martial by appearing in military uniform.[38] Now a commissioned officer in the nascent National Army, he found himself embroiled, like many of his colleagues, in the internecine conflict that was wracking the country.

At one point assigned to a detachment of soldiers guarding the Amiens Street Railway Station, McGarry was forced to cancel an interview with Hayden Talbot that Collins had set up due to the presence of enemy snipers making travel through the city “inadvisable,” as he put it, with admirable deadpan, to Collins in a phone-call from the station.[39]

On the other side of the War was Frank Henderson. A veteran of the Easter Rising like McGarry, Henderson found himself promoted to O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade when his predecessor was arrested. His heart not in the fight, Henderson tried to hold back, even after the first batch of executions of anti-Treaty prisoners in November and the subsequent orders for him to assassinate pro-Treaty politicians. “I didn’t like the order,” he said simply, years later.

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Free State soldiers during the Civil War

McGarry may have owed his life to such reticence, at least according to Henderson, who described him being out and about in town and frequently drunk in Amiens Street (McGarry apparently doing more than just guard duty there), with Henderson having to veto requests from his trigger-happy subordinates to kill him and other vulnerable targets then and there.

Although Henderson did not say whether he had had a role in the fatal shooting of Seán Hales TD that December, the fact that he would for the next sixteen years ask his son to say a mass for the dead man would indicate a guilty conscience.

After the Civil War, Henderson would find himself snubbed by Richard Mulcahy. This was apparently due to Mulcahy holding him responsible for Hales’ death…and perhaps for another, equally dark incident, one where McGarry was not so lucky.[40]

‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’

Tomasina McGarry was upstairs with her three young children at her Dublin home on the 10th December 1922, when there was a knock at the door shortly after 9 am. Startled but suspecting nothing, her mother and sister, who were visiting, went to answer.

Five or six men confronted them. Ignoring the protests that there were children upstairs, the intruders forced the women out into the street at gunpoint and rushed inside. They sprinkled the hall and sitting-room with petrol and set the place alight before running back out. The hall door was slammed behind them, inadvertently locking it and preventing the two McGarry women from re-entering.

Tomasina was oblivious to what was happening on the floor below, only becoming aware that something was very badly wrong when she saw the fire which spread rapidly throughout the house, filling it with noxious smoke.

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Destruction of the Four Courts, Dublin, 1922

Between the flames, the door and 7-year-old Sarah’s disabled condition, escape was impossible. All the trapped family could do was to scream out of the window for help. Drawn by the sight of the two frantic women on the pavement, a crowd soon gathered but, as the Irish Times caustically put it: “as is usual on such occasions, suggestions seem to have been more numerous than acts.”

It was only when Sergeant Patrick Smith of the DMP arrived that anything was done. Smith tried and failed to force open the jammed door and had to resort to rushing through the neighbouring house to the backyard. From there, he was able to enter the burning building and, at great personal risk, reached the upstairs room where Tomasina and the three children were huddling together.

Meanwhile, two young men had succeeded where Smith had failed and battered open the front door, dashing up to the sergeant’s assistance. With this collective aid, the family members were removed from their burning home. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the building was too far gone to save and was left a gutted ruin.

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Ruins in Dublin, 1922

Samson in the Temple

Sadie was uninjured and ‘merely’ in severe shock. Tomasina and the other two children, however, had received burns. The mother was driven to Richmond Hospital. She had burns to her hair, face and throat which were painful but not life-threatening. Sarah and nine-year old Emmet had also been scorched on various parts of their bodies. Taken to the Children’s Hospital on Temple Street, their conditions were ascertained as stable.

The attack on the McGarrys was just one of a number headlined by the Irish Times as ‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’, all of which happened almost simultaneously around 9 am. The tobacco shop owned by James J. Walsh, Postmaster-General of the Free State, was broken into by armed men who “went about their business in the customary way” in setting it alight. Walsh had the luck to be out at the time, unlike the McGarrys or Michael MacDunphy, the Acting Secretary to the Free State Government.

As with the McGarrys, the MacDunphy family was home when intruders sprinkled petrol on the floor to set alight. Mrs MacDunphy was at least given the time to rescue her baby from upstairs while her husband phlegmatically asked the intruders for a chance to set his affairs in order before they shot him.

However, the assailants had only arson, not assassination, in mind and made no move to stop MacDunphy from escaping with his family. The fire brigade arrived in time to save the building from complete destruction, unlike those of the McGarrys and Walsh.

Meanwhile, a store belonging to Jennie Wyse Power, a Free State Senator, had homemade grenades thrown through its windows. Despite the milling crowds on the street outside, no one was hurt when the bombs shattered the windows and destroyed most of the shop fittings.  Unlike the other incidents, the building did not catch fire, making Wyse Power the luckiest victim of that morning’s orgy of destruction.[41]

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The Four Courts, Dublin, Civil War

Black Shame

De Valera condemned the attack on the McGarry household, albeit not in very strident tones. Writing to a colleague two days later, de Valera drew a distinction between strikes on offices belonging to Free State officials, which were all very well and good, “particularly if these burnings are done effectively,” and those “as that of McGarry’s which were very badly executed” in addition to appearing “mean and petty” – apparently de Valera’s chief concern there.[42]

He might have used stronger words if he was to know the full end result. Despite the initial optimistic diagnosis for the wounded children, Emmet’s condition worsened. Five days after the attack, he died. At the vote of condolences passed by Dublin Corporation on the 18th December, one of the councillors described the occasion as a “most pathetic one”:

There was black shame on the valour of Ireland, which it would take a long time to wipe out. It was not war, but a stupid attempt to intimidate the expression of opinion by public men, and would avail nothing.[43]

The funeral of Emmet McGarry took place that same day. The cortege, large and impressive, left the Children’s Hospital, and was attended by a considerable number of Cabinet Ministers, Dáil Deputies and other notable individuals. His father was able to attend but Tomasina remained in hospital, still bed-stricken from her burns.[44]

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Funeral during the Irish Civil War

Summary of a Career

The career of Seán McGarry as an Irish revolutionary followed the course of the revolution itself, from resistance to responsibility, from triumph to tragedy. Taken under the wing of Tom Clarke as a young man, McGarry was a witness, as well as a participant, to many of the intrigues and manoeuvres that made coups like the Howth Gun-running and the Easter Rising possible. A willing soldier as well as an able conspirator, McGarry spent much of the Rising by Clake’s side in the GPO, narrowly avoiding death on at least one occasion and helping to cover the escape.

He shared the imprisonment of his comrades and, like many of them, threw himself in the Sinn Féin movement upon his release. He continued on in the IRB, though his rise to its presidency and subsequent withdrawal mirrored the revival and waning of that organisation’s influence. One man neither he nor the Brotherhood could control was Éamon de Valera, and not even a spell of jail together could bridge the gap between the two men.

Although by nature low-key and content to be overshadowed by more charismatic men such as Michael Collins, McGarry played a central role in two public events. The first was his dramatic appearance at the Mansion House on March 1919 while still on the run from prison in an event carefully choreographed by Collins. The second was almost three years later in the Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, where he sparred with de Valera and Mary McSwiney.

For all his service to the cause, McGarry was not to be spared the horrors of the subsequent Civil War. As a commissioned officer in the National Army, he was a tempting target for some among the enemy but the good will of others saved him. Such good fortune did not last forever. His family bore the brunt of the conflict when their home was burnt down, resulting in the death of his nine-year old son.

Sources

[1] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 180 ; Henderson, Frank (BHM / WS 821), p. 17

[2] Bulmer Hobson Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 13,161/4/1

[3] Dore, Eamon T. (BHM / WS 392), p. 10

[4] Ó Broin, p. 163

[5] Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015), p. 289

[6] Dore, pp. 10-1

[7] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 46

[8] Ó Broin, p. 182

[9] Irish Times (quoting from the Evening Herald), 05/03/1919

[10] Lynch, Michael (BHM / WS 511), p. 89 ; Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 128

[11] McMahon, Liam (BHM / WS 274), pp. 6-7

[12] Lynch, pp. 89-91

[13] McMahon, pp. 11-3

[14] Lynch, pp. 92-4

[15] Ibid, pp. 94-5

[16] Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012), p. 27

[17] Ibid, p. 79 ; White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958)  Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

[18] Irish Times, 07/12/1922

[19] McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368) ; McGarry, Seán. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: 24SP5125), p. 14 ; ‘McGarry, Seán’,  Dictionary of Irish Biography

[20] Ó Broin, p. 184

[21] McGallogly, John (BHM / WS 244), pp. 22-3

[22] Daly, Patrick G. (BHM / WS 814), p. 40

[23] Coogan, pp. 198, 712

[24] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 31,250/2

[25] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), pp. 44, 190-2

[26] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 36

[27] Ibid, p. 40

[28] Ibid, pp. 61, 50

[29] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 42

[30] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  209. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

[31] Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006), p. 114

[32] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 250, 256

[33] Knirck, pp. 154-5

[34] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 210

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, p. 211

[37] Irish Independent, 11/01/1922

[38] Irish Times, 11/09/1922

[39] Talbot, p. 44

[40] Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), pp. 7-9

[41] Irish Times, 11/12/1922

[42] Coogan, pp. 344-5

[43] Irish Times, 19/12/1922

[44] Ibid

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Patrick G., WS 814

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGallogly, John, WS 244

McGarry, Seán, WS 368

McMahon, Liam, WS 274

 

Books

Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015)

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

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

Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)

Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)

White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012)

 

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

 

National Library of Ireland

Bulmer Hobson Papers

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

 

National Military Service Pensions Collection

McGarry, Tomasina. Ref: MSP34REF60225

McGarry, Seán. Ref: Ref: 24SP5125

In the Presence of His Enemies: The Controversy of James Dalton, May 1920

The Murder

Clare_Street
Clare St., Limerick

On the 15th of May 1920, James Dalton was making his way back to his house at 5 Clare Street, Limerick, at the end of another unremarkable day. He had left home earlier at around noon for his work as a clerk in the Electric Power Station on Frederick Street, and afterwards had joined his father-in-law in a pub sometime after 6 pm. Half an hour later, the two men had left the premise and went their separate ways. If Dalton was in any way troubled or concerned for his safety, he gave no sign of it.

Within a couple of hundred yards from his residence and within sight of his thirteen-year old daughter, Kitty, James Dalton was accosted. The initial report numbered the assailants as from four to six, though Kitty saw three, one in front of her father and the other two on either side. Testifying afterwards, Kitty could not identify any of them, only that they were young and one was tall.

Their quarry surrounded, the men opened fire point-blank with revolvers and continued doing so even after Dalton had collapsed face-first onto the street, one man lingering while the others made their escape long enough to put two more rounds into the back of his prone target. Caught in the line of fire was six-year old Elly Lowe, struck by a stray shot that left a jagged hole in her calf.

Both victims were rushed to hospital. While Elly Lowe’s wound was ruled not to be a serious one, Dalton was pronounced “life extinct”. Six bullets were found in him: three in his front, one embedded over his heart, one lower in the same region, with the other passing far enough to lacerate his liver, two more in his back, and the last in his hand, close to the thumb. Four of the injuries by themselves would have been enough to be fatal. The close proximity of his assassins and their cold thoroughness had ensured that Dalton’s chances of survival had been almost non-existent.

The 48-year-old deceased had left behind a widow and eleven children.[1]

Limerick 1922(1)

The Mystery

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) arrived at the scene of the crime. That some of them felt the need to be armed while on duty was an indicator in itself that Limerick was not a city at peace with itself. Though the police stayed for some time, no arrests were made. No arrests would ever be made.

As the murder had been committed in an isolated district of the city, it took until sometime after 7 pm, over half an hour later, for the news to be widespread. There was shock at the slaying of a man who had played leading roles in a number of sporting, political and military spheres, a fact laid bare by his brother as Joseph Dalton took the stand at the resulting Crown court of inquiry in Limerick.

A skilled and versatile athlete, James Dalton had boxed as a middle-weight champion, and had been a trainer for the All-Ireland Limerick hurling team. He had been heavily involved in the rise of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party, having campaigned for its East Clare and North Roscommon Parliamentary election victories, as well in the unsuccessful by-election for South Armagh where he had impressed an acquaintance as “physically a fine figure of a man.”[2]

As a patriot he could not be faulted, having assembled with the rest of local Irish Volunteers on Easter Week four years ago for what would be for them an aborted Rising. It was true, Joseph added, that his brother had not had the same interest in the Volunteers once the movement really took off after the Rising although he had remained with them. In any case, he had already proven his willingness to lay down his life for his country.

As Joseph recounted in the Crown courthouse his brother’s multiple careers, it would have seemed baffling that anybody would want to kill such a prominent and well-connected individual. But as Joseph continued on, it became clear that things had been amiss for some time.[3]

limerick_courthouse2
Limerick Courthouse

The Suspicion

Not included by Joseph in his testimony was how Dalton had also been shot at two months before and wounded with the loss of a finger, probably from throwing up his hand in a defensive gesture. Graffiti on the streets had announced that the matter was far from over: “A bullet is waiting for Dalton the spy.” Undaunted, he had continued on with his life as normal. Perhaps he had attempted to take matters into his own hands and believed the matter resolved.[4]

What this matter may have been was strongly hinted at by Joseph as he continued on with his testimony: in December 1919, Dalton had been seen entering the house of a RIC officer and leaving it sometime later. This had given rise to what Joseph called a “scandalous report” and though he did not spell it out, it was obvious that the scandal lay in the implication that Dalton was acting as a spy for the police.

No charges were made against Dalton, either from Sinn Féin or his fellow Volunteers. It was all rumour, but rumours were enough to kill or be killed over as Ireland became increasingly mired in insurgency and counter-insurgency.

Eager to silence these suspicions before they claimed any more from him, Dalton had met with a representative of the recently formed Dáil Éireann on St Stephen’s Day of 1919, demanding a full examination to clear himself in the eyes of his peers. This request had been duly forwarded on. Some time later, Dalton had gotten the inquest he had sought, the documented results of which were presented by Joseph to the Crown courtroom:

Dáil Éireann Official Verdict in case of Mr James Dalton. The main point was not in dispute that the plaintiff (Mr Dalton) had entered certain premises at 1am and remained there til morning, the fact which had brought suspicion upon him.

Having heard the evidence I was of opinion that the plaintiff had been guilty of a grave indiscretion and error of judgement in acting as he had done, and that his conduct very naturally gave rise to much suspicion.

As against this I was certain of opinion that there had been no guilty or dishonest notice on his part, and that the suspicions in this respect had been unfounded.[5]

Plainly, however, not everyone had agreed with that verdict.

This was the first time this exoneration had been made public, although, according to Joseph, these Dáil findings had been common knowledge on the streets of Limerick a week before the shooting, further underlining for his audience the senselessness of the murder, and that an innocent man had died for nothing.

A Question of Courts

It was a peculiar scene: Joseph Dalton using the Crown court to vindicate his brother by airing the ruling of another court that was regarded as an illegal entity by the one he was standing in. Of those in attendance, only the Crown representative, District Inspector (DI) Marrinan, seemed to recognise the contradiction and rose to question the witness on the stand.

When Marrinan asked Joseph if he had been present at the Dáil inquiry in question, J.J. Dundon, the solicitor for the Dalton family, objected, accusing the DI of trying to trick the witness into incriminating himself. Upon Marrinan promising as a man of honour not to take such an advantage, Joseph confirmed that he had indeed been present at the Dáil inquiry.

Marrinan continued his line of questioning, only to be met by a wall of repetition:

DI Marrinan: Was the verdict given in open court?

Joseph Dalton: It was forwarded to the proper authorities.

DI Marrinan: What I want to know – was it promulgated in open court at the time your brother was tried?

Joseph Dalton: It was forwarded to the proper authorities.

After getting Joseph to confirm that James Dalton had been present at his own trial, DI Marrinan pounced with an unpleasantly pointed question: what would have been the consequences if James Dalton had been found instead guilty by the Dáil inquiry? It did not take a legal mastermind to understand what the District Inspector was insinuating: that James Dalton had instead been found guilty by this Dáil and been executed accordingly.

Dundon objected again on the grounds that no witness could tell what anyone would do in hypothetical situations. Marrinan pressed on, wanting to know what powers this underground court had. At this, Joseph rallied enough to make a sortie from the stand: “It is the government of this country and it is recognised by the country.” However, when Marrinan repeatedly asked whether the power of this government included that to sentence a man to death, Joseph retreated back to pleas of ignorance on the matter.

Choice Words

Unable to lure his witness into saying anything beyond stock answers, Marrinan instead tried unsettling him with thinly veiled taunts:

DI Marrinan: Were you aware that a good many evil disposed people had given your brother a lot of trouble – didn’t they shoot him?

Joseph Dalton: That was public property; I was aware he was shot.

DI Marrinan: Were you not aware also that in different parts of the town there were written notices “Dalton the Spy” and “Dalton the Informer”?

It was the first time in the course of the inquiry that the loaded terms ‘spy’ and ‘informer’ had been voiced. Joseph did not rise to the challenge and downplayed the aforementioned notices, dismissing them as the work of youngsters whose mothers had already apologised for them. Furthermore, he added, the Sinn Féin Club had helped to wipe out the notices, a message to his onlookers that James had had the support of the new local authorities as well as the new national one.

Lines in the Sand

Hoping to cast a wider net, DI Marrinan began to ask about the men James had contacted when seeking his Dáil Éireann inquiry. When it seemed that Joseph might actually answer, Dundon cut them both short on his potentially sensitive matter. The solicitor then ignored the District Inspector to address to jury, reminding them of the brutality of a man shot down in front of his children, and how he did not think he had anything to add by speaking of it any further.

What Dundon did speak further on was how the lack of charges made against James Dalton by the political organisation – and by this, everyone knew he meant Sinn Féin – and the steps he had taken to clear his name of the still-unspecified accusation against him all pointed towards an innocent man. Dundon closed his speech with the maxim of how ‘nothing uncharitable be said of the dead.’ In short: case closed.

A naïve newcomer to the country might have found it peculiar that a solicitor in a murder inquiry would spend his time on the reputation of the victim and none on who might have actually done the deed. But then, Dundon probably knew that the Crown court in which he stood had little power on the matter, anyway.

The District Inspector was not so easily deterred, however, when it came to his turn. How had it come to pass, he wondered out loud, that in a Christian and civilised city, a man had been done to death in broad daylight by a shadowy court that presumed the power of life and death? Did not the jury consider this one murder to be a dangerous precedence, that to accept the situation as somehow normal would be to grant such assassination a form of legality? Marrinan implored his audience as Irishmen and Catholics:

For God’s sake have pluck and have public opinion, and stand up against these cold-blood murders that are disgusting and ruining our country. Let them accept no record of any secret court but only the record of a court that tries a man with the light of God on it.

I beg of you to take your courage in your hands, and I say damn these people who would shoot myself to-morrow if they could do it. Take your courage and do as I would do, and you will soon have Ireland a land that every man can be proud of.

But Marrinan was preaching to the wrong congregation. The District Inspector was yesterday’s man, as out of touch as the system he was striving to defend. When the jury returned its verdict, it gave nothing more than a repeat of the obvious – that James Dalton had died of shock and haemorrhaging from multiple wounds by persons unknown – and the standard expression of sympathy for the bereaved family. For better or for worse, the jury had accepted the new status quo in their city.

The sole whiff of comedy in the grim and often tense proceedings was provided when DI Marrinan refused to hand back the Dáil letter of James Dalton’s innocence. When the court coroner protested such ungentlemanly conduct, the District Inspector replied that it would take a better man than the coroner to take it off him. Rather than risk the spectacle of two officials brawling in court over a sheet of a paper, the coroner merely accepted a second copy from the deceased’s brother.[6]

A Question of Spies

The IRA practice of targeting spies during the War of Independence has been a contentious issue for historians, not least for how emotionally charged it can be. When reviewing such practices by the Meath Brigade, historian Oliver Coogan admitted to his readers that it “may make unpleasant reading or even upset some people’s romantic notions that nothing underhand or unsavoury was indulged in by Volunteers in the old days.”[7]

West-Limerick-Flying-Column
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Further complicating such romantic notions are the questions to whether the victims were killed solely on the basis of their suspected espionage or if factors such as sectarianism, personal feuds, unfounded paranoia and the like were involved.

The case of James Dalton is atypical for a number of reasons. For one, very few IRA members were charged by their own with spying throughout the course of the War. This made the IRA, according to historian Eunan O’Halpin, one of the safest places for an informant to have been was within the IRA, given how only a handful of Volunteers – perhaps only half a dozen – were executed up to December 1921.[8]

As if this did not make Dalton’s death enough of an anomaly, he had already received a ‘clean bill of health’ by the Dáil authorities for all the good it did him, suggesting either a dire miscommunication between Limerick and Dublin or a breakdown in IRA discipline.DI Marrinan had tried to muddy the waters further by arguing that it had been the underground Dáil court that had had Dalton killed, whatever its own paperwork claimed.

The recently released Witness Statements from the Bureau of Military History (BMW) have helped to shed some light on the issue. In other ways, however, the BMH Statements only complicate the picture further.

A Tragic Mistake?

Kevin O’Shiel, an acquaintance of Dalton’s from when they had campaigned together for Sinn Féin in the 1918 South Armagh by-election, described his death as “a tragic mistake, indeed, a crime.” Although not personally familiar with the details of the case, he was told by the IRA director for publicity, Pierce Beasley – who was – that Dalton had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and it had been other members of this secret society who had killed him.

Dalton’s habit of visiting the Limerick RIC barracks canteen for a drink (“being rather a thirsty soul,” as O’Shiel generously put it) was enough to put him under suspicion. Quite why Dalton would feel the need to go to an enemy stronghold for a drink when there were presumably enough pubs in Limerick already, O’Shiel did not speculate about.

Piaras_Beasla
Pierce Beasley

Despite vindication by a top level inquiry, which had included Pierce Beasley, an “undisciplined group” from the IRB took it upon themselves to shoot Dalton all the same. Michael Collins, for one, was enraged, not only that an innocent man was dead, but how a decree of the IRB Supreme Executive, of which Collins was head, had been blatantly ignored.[9]

This breach in discipline was taken seriously enough by the IRA GHQ for Frank Thornton, the Deputy Assistant Director of Intelligence, and ‘Squad’ member Joe Dolan to be dispatched to Limerick for investigation. After a week of careful survey, as Thornton put it, they were able to piece together something of the local scene.

Dalton had not only been a member of the 1st battalion of the Mid-Limerick IRA, but its intelligence officer, and his killers had been from the 2nd battalion, the 1st and 2nd covering Limerick City and Castleconnell respectively. Thornton noticed the tension between the two battalions that dated back to the failure of the Easter Rising, although he leaves that possible reason for the shooting unsaid and says nothing about any role by the IRB.

Instead, he identifies the motive as the result of a misunderstanding: Dalton had indeed been associating with enemy agents like he had been accused of, but they had been his double-agents and he had been meeting them for information, and “some very valuable information” at that according to Thornton, in his capacity as intelligence officer. Thornton and Dolan left Limerick confident that they had definite evidence to submit to GHQ that Dalton had been innocent like the earlier Dáil Éireann inquiry had said.[10]

Outsiders

Both O’Shiel and Thornton were too far removed from the Limerick scene to be ideal sources. O’Shiel’s worth is primarily in what he tells us the reactions in Dublin, and he corroborates Joseph Dalton’s claim that the victim had already been cleared of the charges against him.

As for Thornton and Dolan, their week in the city was unlikely to be enough to fully gauge the situation there, despite what Thornton thought, but Dalton’s membership of the 1st battalion and the feud between the 1st and 2nd battalions are corroborated by more local sources.

Historians have been divided over Thornton’s statement that Dalton had been a luckless intelligence officer shot for doing his job too well. According to Thomas Toomey: “Thornton and Dolan were hard-bitten intelligence men who lived by their wits in the ruthless world of Dublin in 1920 and it would be reasonable to believe that they would have smelled a ‘cock and bull’ story from a distance” – which may have been true in Dublin, but in Limerick they were outsiders in an unfamiliar scene.[11]

John O’Callaghan, on the other hand, characterises the 1st battalion as having been “redundant” since 1917, making Dalton’s activities as its intelligence agent unlikely. Furthermore, if Dalton had secured such information, none of it has since come to light.[12]

Of course, there is no reason to believe that any such intelligence should do so, considering the clandestine nature of espionage, especially if Dalton had declined to keep written notes. Still, it is surely significant that none of the other sympathetic sources repeated this claim.

Insiders

More detailed accounts can be found in the BMH Statements of those who worked in the Limerick IRA. John J. Quilty could claim an intimate knowledge of the case, having testified in Dalton’s favour at his Dáil Éireann inquiry. Though an early recruit when the Irish Volunteers were first formed in 1913, Quilty’s role during the War of Independence was limited largely to fund-raising for imprisoned Volunteers.

He was still prepared to help out on the odd occasion such as assisting in the kidnap of a RIC sergeant in revenge for him attempting to arrest a Volunteer in the village of Caherconlish. The policeman was driven six to eight miles out of Caherconlish, struggling all the while with his captors in the backseat, before being abandoned in the middle of nowhere.

For this bloodless but humiliating assault, two or three of those involved were arrested and imprisoned. Quilty was suspected but remained untouched. This incident was well known to Dalton, which was why Quilty was called as a friendly witness for the hearing.

According to Quilty, the inquiry was held overhead a boot-shop called Herberts in O’Connell Street, Limerick, opposite the Royal George Hotel. Presiding over it as judge was Cahir Davitt, while the secretary of the court (though Quilty is not certain on this point) was Paddy Sheenan, the former secretary to Éamon de Valera. If so, this would tally with Kevin O’Shiel’s description of the inquiry as a high-level affair.

Upon cross-examination by Dalton’s legal counsel, Quilty recounted the incident of the kidnapped RIC officer. The counsel’s point was clear: Dalton knew of Quilty’s involvement, and Quilty had not been arrested unlike the others, and so it followed that Dalton was not passing on incriminating information to the Crown authorities. Quilty had no problem agreeing with this line of reasoning, at which point Dalton pushed his luck.

Going over the head of his counsel and proving the legal adage that the man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, Dalton asked his witness if he considered him, as an acquaintance of thirty years, as someone who could be trusted. Quilty coolly replied that he preferred to keep to the point he had already testified for and no further. However embarrassing this rebuff, it did not stop the inquiry from ruling Dalton innocent all the same.[13]

Dail-Republican-Court-session
Dáil Republican Court, Westport Town Hall, 1920

 Manhunt

The murder of a man the Dáil had already cleared of wrongdoing (although not of indiscretion) was a challenge to its authority that could not go unanswered. Richard O’Connell, a senior officer in the Limerick IRA, was tasked with tracking down the main suspect. Given the inter-battalion rivalry, it is perhaps not surprising that this was the quartermaster of the 2nd battalion: Martin Barry.

North-Kerry-Flying-Column-300x188
IRA/Irish Volunteers

As O/C of the 5th battalion, O’Connell could be counted on as a neutral party, and as someone Barry would have no reason to avoid. On the run and now wanted by both sides in the ongoing war, Barry proved himself an elusive prey until O’Connell was able to arrange a meeting with him in Limerick City, from which he was taken to Castleconnell and placed under arrest. O’Connell does not say how willingly Barry went. The quartermaster need not have worried, as there was no clear evidence against him for Dalton’s murder and the charges fizzled out after a week.[14]

Both Quilty and O’Connell agreed that the friction between the 1st and 2nd battalions was as much a factor in Dalton’s murder as his poor choice of houses to visit. Quilty went as far as to accuse the 2nd battalion of maligning Dalton’s character to smear the 1st battalion by association, a belief that was apparently shared by others and one, given the vitriol in the feud, that is not hard to believe.[15]

O’Connell’s account also sheds more light on the role of the IRB. He had been enrolled in the Organisation – as insiders liked to call it – by Liam Forde, who was the Brigade Commandant and O/C of the 1st Battalion as well as one of the heads of the local IRB Circle. Despite Forde’s position in the Mid Limerick IRA, O’Connell regarded his involvement in the case as undertaken on behalf of the IRB specifically.

O’Connell’s attitude towards the IRB when he came to composing his BMH Statement decades later was one of faint condensation, remembering it as having little importance in Limerick and being largely limited to the 1st battalion. Given the poor reputation that battalion had among the others, the IRB was regarded with the same low opinion accordingly.[16]

The Brotherhood

The association in O’Connell’s account of the IRB with the 1st battalion, and the consensus in most of the sources that Dalton was killed by the 2nd battalion, would seem to contradict Kevin O’Shiel’s opinion that Dalton’s shooting was an act by the IRB, this same IRB which supposedly had no real influence outside of one battalion. However, contemporary paperwork within the IRA would seem to argue against such a clear depiction.

Gearoid-OSullivan
Gearóid O’Sullivan

Court-martial charge sheets signed on the 27th of May 1920 by IRA Adjutant general– who would then have been Gearóid O’Sullivan – listed a series of alleged offences by six Volunteers, one of whom was Martin Barry. All six were charged with committing robberies without the sanction of the IRA GHQ and with keeping the money gained from such robberies – it is unclear which one was considered the worst.

Barry’s charge sheet is noteworthy in how it included the accusation that he:

Attempted to coerce an Officer of the Limerick City Batt. into joining another organization, by threatening him that he would not be acceptable for the position of Batt. Commandant, and that he would not be trusted by his officers unless he joined.[17]

Although this other organisation was not named, its description could only match the IRB which had a policy of infiltrating other societies such as the IRA and encouraging the promotion of its own members to better control the secondary body.[18]

That Barry was in the IRB is supported by the recollections of Con McNamara, also of the 2nd Battalion and a lieutenant in its A Company, of Barry acting as witness for McNamara being sworn into the Brotherhood in 1917 by their commanding officer, John Sweeney.[19]

Such evidence indicates that John J. Quilty and Richard O’Connell’s opinion that the IRB in the Mid Limerick Brigade was largely limited to the 1st Battalion was an oversimplification. After all, not only were at least three 2nd Battalion officers also in the IRB, but one was accused of attempting to threaten an officer of 1st into joining the fraternity.

Kevin O’Shiel’s belief that Dalton’s murder was a case of the IRB turning on its own now appears a more solid one. That IRB members would defy so blatantly an order from their superiors in the Executive casts the Brotherhood in a different light to its usual image as a slick, well-oiled machine under the firm control of its leadership. Here, it is a body of men as prone to infighting, feuds and uncertain discipline as any of this period.

East-Limerick-Flying-Column-300x235
IRA, East Limerick

In light of what O’Connell had to say, it would be tempting to regard these court-martials as being for Dalton’s murder, particularly as the dates are so close together. But nowhere in the paperwork does it suggest anything of the sort, and it is hard to imagine the murder of a fellow Volunteer being considered of less importance than the misappropriation of funds. O’Connell’s belief that he had arrested Barry on the charge of Dalton’s shooting seems to have been a confusion, perhaps brought about the decades that had passed by the time he composed his BMH Statement in 1952.

The court-martial was to be held on the 5th of June in Limerick, and letters were sent to Rory O’Connor, as IRA Director of Engineering, and Tomás Malone, Commandant of the East Limerick Brigade, to attend in their roles as senior officers. The court-martial notes depict a sullen and uncooperative Martin Barry refusing to plead or answer questions.[20]

The final verdict has been unrecorded. Some clue, however, may be gleaned from how Barry was identified in April 1921 as still being the Brigade quartermaster. Clearly, the court-martial had done his career no harm at all.[21]

A Conclusion of Sorts?

A visiting reporter from the Irish Times in the days following Dalton’s murder noted how the scene of the crime on Clare Street attracted hundreds of visitors, and the many standpoints from which the circumstances were debated. The discussion continues on to this day, with none of the sources able to provide a clear picture.[22]

Joseph Dalton was evasive on the stand in the Crown court inquiry. Frank Thornton described James Dalton as an intelligence officer who fell under suspicion when meeting his own spies, a claim that not even the other sympathetic sources repeat. Quilty and O’Connell provide some illuminating details, particularly on the feud between the 1st and 2nd Battalions that served as the backdrop to the murder.

O’Connell, however, underestimated the extent of the IRB. He believed it limited to the 1st Battalion, while there is ample proof that it was prominent throughout the 2nd as well. Kevin O’Shiel, the source most removed from the Limerick scene, was probably the most accurate when he described the murder as resulting from conflict within the local IRB, but he could provide little more than that.

Even the original question of whether Dalton was a police spy is disputed. Both the Dáil Éireann and IRB Supreme Executive found there were sufficient grounds to declare him innocent, but this was not enough to stop those who believed otherwise from shooting him dead in the street.

There was to be no justice for James Dalton. Another brother, John, continued the fight to clear his name, going so far as to write to Arthur Griffith. Dalton’s widow was granted £500 by the Dáil in recognition of the unlawfulness of his homicide. She died in 1933. Their eldest daughter, who had been among those who had witnessed their father’s murder, heard the names of those responsible from her father as he had lain dying in the street. She never revealed who they were. According to her son, she never ceased to preach the virtues of forgiveness.[23]

It was the best legacy James Dalton was going to get, as a man who learnt that sometimes in war, it is not only the enemy who is trying to kill you.

IRA3

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (09/03/2015)

 

References

[1] Limerick Chronicle, 18/05/1920, 27/05/1920

[2] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920 ; O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part 5), p. 147

[3] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920

[4] Limerick Leader, 17/05/1920

[5] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920 ; Limerick Leader, 28/05/1920

[6] Limerick Leader, 31/05/1920. Compare the muted reaction of the jury with the coroner’s inquest into the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain which accused Llyod George, among others, of having a role.

[7] Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath, 1923-23 (Dublin: Folens and Co. Ltd, 1983), p.168

[8] O’Halpin, Eunan, ‘Problematic Killing during the Irish War of Independence and its Aftermath: Civilian Spies and Informers’, Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain, and Europe: Historical Perspectives (Sallins, Co Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013) p. 343

[9] O’Shiel, p. 148

[10] Thornton, Frank (BMH / WS 615), p. 16-7

[11] Toomey, Thomas. The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1919 (Thomas Toomey, 2010), pp. 284-5

[12] O’Callaghan, John. Revolutionary Limerick: The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), p. 176

[13] Quilty, John J. (BMH / WS 516), pp. 16-9

[14] O’Connell, Richard (BMH / WS 656) pp. 37-8

[15] Quilty, p. 19

[16] O’Connell, Richard (BMH / WS 656) pp. 37-8

[17] National Library of Ireland Manuscripts, MS 11,410/6/2

[18] One example of this was the eyewitness testimony of a distinctly unimpressed Séumas Robinson (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18

[19] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/134, p. 11

[20] National Library of Ireland Manuscripts, MS 11,410/6/2-7 and MS 11,406/2/3-5 for the complete paperwork that has survived on the court-martial.

[21] Portley, Morgan (BMH / WS 1559) p. 29

[22] Irish Times, 18/05/1920

[23] O’Callaghan, p. 175 ; Toomey, p. 284 ; with thanks to Sarah Ryan, James Dalton’s great-granddaughter

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Times, 18/05/1920

Limerick Chronicle, 18/05/1920

Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 17/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 28/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 31/05/1920

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

O’Connell, Richard, WS 656

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770 – Part 5

Portley, Morgan, WS 1559

Quilty, John J., WS 516

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Thornton, Frank, WS 615

Books

Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath, 1923-23 (Dublin: Folens and Co. Ltd, 1983)

O’Callaghan, John. Revolutionary Limerick: The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010)

O’Halpin, Eunan, ‘Problematic Killing during the Irish War of Independence and its Aftermath: Civilian Spies and Informers’, Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain, and Europe: Historical Perspectives (Sallins, Co Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Toomey, Thomas. The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1919 (Thomas Toomey, 2010)

National Library of Ireland Manuscripts

MS 11,406/2/3-5

MS 11,410/6/2-7

Military Service Pensions Collection

MA/MSPC/RO/134

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

The Savonarola

Of the voices raised against the Treaty during the Dáil debates in January 1922, few were more strident than that of Séumas Robinson. He came with impeccable credentials, both political and military, being the TD for East Tipperary-Waterford as well as the O/C to the 3rd Tipperary Brigade.

Not that Robinson was above opening his address with a joke:

In my own plain, direct, if not too lucid way, I would like to fire a few shots at the Treaty – metaphorically speaking.

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The Republic was at stake, Robinson continued, and if the reputations of certain people would have to be ruined for its sake, then so be it. The people whose reputations he had in mind were doubtlessly the plenipotentiaries who had returned from London with the hated Treaty in hand – two of whom would feel the edge of Robinson’s tongue before he was done.

To Robinson, this despicable compromise was no recent thing. It had had its conception three years ago when the Irish Volunteers had been denied a general convention and thus the chance to have a proper say in matters. The compromise had continued into its embryonic form when the Volunteers had come under the authority of the Dublin GHQ, further neutering them of their independence.

The proto-compromise had passed into its chrysalis form (with Robinson mixing his birthing metaphors here) when GHQ began paying a wage to its soldiers – distasteful enough for the puritanical Robinson – without providing any appreciable military assistance to go with it, an oversight which he was not about to forgive.

The end result of these machinations was the Treaty under discussion. Like all compromises, Robinson concluded, it was like a mule in that it was barren. For all his keenness to portray himself as a bluff, no-nonsense man of action, Robinson could not resist the occasional rhetorical flourish.

The Martinet

In contrast to the gombeen ways of GHQ were the high-minded principles of the Volunteers, men for whom ideals and symbols were worthwhile things in themselves, whatever anyone else thought. As far as Robinson was concerned, they had been refused a voice for too long. So that the assembled deputies would be in no doubt as to where the Volunteers stood on the matter of the Treaty, Robinson read out a letter he had received that day.

It was from a number of IRA officers, first denying the rumours that they were favourable to the Treaty and, secondly, reaffirming their allegiance to the Republic, which in the context of the debate could only mean a stand against the Treaty. The names of the signatories were given, along with – ominously enough – the units within the IRA that they commanded: Liam Lynch of the 1st Southern Division, Ernie O’Malley of the 2nd Southern Division, Oscar Traynor of the Dublin Brigade, and Michael McCormack of the 3rd Southern Division.

If Robinson had been hoping for a stir amongst his audience, he succeeded. Richard Hayes TD retorted that the letter did not speak for his constituency of East Limerick and he doubted that it spoke for the other Divisional Commandants either. Even Éamon de Valera, no proponent for the Treaty, felt obliged to step in to say that it was scarcely right for any officer to be using the name of the army like that.

Somewhat mollified, Robinson admitted that reading out such a letter may have seemed a thoughtless thing to do. But he was not prepared to back down on this point, not even against the Chief:

De Valera: I would ask that the army be allowed to keep its discipline.

Robinson: The army has always been regarded as the army pure and simple. I submit that it is not so. If we had no political outlook we would not be soldiers at all.

De Valera: I know that they are citizen-soldiers. The point is that bringing them up as Brigades is not wise.

Robinson: I think the Volunteers have been very badly treated. The Volunteers demand a veto on the change of our country’s constitution. We are not a national army in the ordinary sense; we are not a machine pure and simple; we have political views as soldiers. For the purpose of this veto I here demand a general convention of the Volunteers.[1]

Robinson’s speech was remembered admiringly for years afterwards by his fellow Anti-Treatyites, even those who did not normally give him the benefit of the doubt. Dan Breen broke his usual policy of never saying anything complimentary about his former O/C when he described how Robinson had “very properly reminded” the Dáil about the right of the IRA to hold political views.[2]

Todd Andrews did not think too much of the famous Soloheadbeg ambush that helped make Robinson’s name, downplaying it as “an operation that just went wrong.” However, one of the few positive impressions he took away from watching the Dáil debates was Robinson’s speech which cheered him and “totally expressed my feeling.”[3]

The Accuser

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

As if the threat of military subordination was not fiery enough, Robinson laid into the two men he held responsible for the deplorable state of affairs: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the mother and the father of the Treaty respectively as Robinson dubbed them. What followed was pithily summed up by the Freeman’s Journal as a “personal attack on Mr. Collins, belittling the latter’s part in the War.”[4]

This was not an ad hominem attack for the sake of it. Robinson quoted an earlier speaker, Patrick MacCartan, on how he had said he could understand support for the Treaty on the basis that “what is good enough for Michael Collins is good enough for me.” Arthur Griffith has gone as far as to describe his fellow plenipotentiary as “the man who had won the war.”

If the Treaty was to be argued for on the basis of one man’s personal qualities, then it was only fair to stand against it on that same basis and, to Robinson, the Collins he had been hearing so much about had nothing in common with the Collins who had signed the Treaty. The former was a fictional construct, the other a weak and unworthy man who had done nothing to warrant the laurels heaped on him.

Kevin O’Higgins felt obliged to speak out: “Are we discussing Michael Collins or the Treaty?”

“Or are we impeaching him?” said another deputy, meaning Collins. Even if the question was meant rhetorically, Robinson was happy to take it up, pointing out that the plenipotentiaries were already in the dock in a manner of speaking. It was a trial in which Robinson was determined to act as prosecutor even if the Speaker of the Dáil, Eoin MacNeill, questioned the relevance: “I think it is as near not discussing the Treaty as possible.”

Undeterred, Robinson delivered what he hoped would be his coup de grâce to the opposing faction: that the plenipotentiaries appeared to be guilty of nothing less than treason. Before pressing on, Robinson assured his listeners that he would confine his arguments to the facts …before proceeding with a speculation on the motives of the opposing signatories to the Treaty: Arthur Griffith and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

The Hardliner

griffith
Arthur Griffith

Both leaders, so Robinson argued, had come to the conclusion that they could not overcome the other in negotiations. So that they could both bring a result of sorts to their respective cabinets, Griffith and Lloyd George agreed between them to give Ireland Dominion status, or Dominion Home Rule as Robinson termed it, the reference to the former, now discredited, attempt at self-rule being no accident.

The talks in London, along with the Prime Minister’s talk of a “terrible and immediate war” if they fell through, were thus all playacting on the part of Griffith and Lloyd George, with Collins as an enabler, for the benefit of the gullible.

Robinson finished his hypothesis with the suggestion that Griffith and Collins were open to the charge of treason: “No doubt,” he said:

They will give a satisfactory explanation of their efforts; and I would be more than delighted to withdraw any imputation that my words may unjustly convey. I think they should thank me for saying openly what is in the minds of many.

That Collins or Griffith would be thanking Robinson was as unlikely as him withdrawing his imputations any time soon, delightedly or otherwise.

His piece done, Robinson sat down and relinquished the floor. It went to the next speaker and then the next, as it would continue to do so for a very long time that day and the following one before the final vote.[5]

Amidst the heated atmosphere of the debates, Robinson’s vitriol was not unique. Cathal Brugha’s own personal attack on Collins was enough, some thought, to lose the anti-Treaty cause key votes. His speech did, however, mark Robinson as one of the hardliners. When the Dáil voted at 64-57 in favour of the Treaty, his name was down unsurprisingly as one of the ‘no’ votes.[6]

The Renegade

Robinson’s opposition to the Treaty was in no small part the complaint of a put-upon groundling against his aloof and feckless superiors. But then, Robinson had already displayed a contentious attitude towards authority.

Sometime after the Truce had come into effect, he had discussed with a number of others the possibility of obtaining weapons from Germany in anticipation of renewed hostilities. During these talks, Robinson had outlined his sense of the military situation facing him: the Crown forces had largely withdrawn to their barracks and while this limited their options, it also made them near untouchable.

Robinson had hoped that the German mission could result in the IRA acquiring the necessary equipment to breach fortifications such as trench mortars. Robinson warned the others not to inform anyone of their plans as they were going over the heads of GHQ. Their superiors in Dublin, Robinson was sure, were not sufficiently active in procuring weapons, particularly for the county divisions such as Robinson’s.

The visit to Germany was to prove a failure and none of the hoped-for armaments were brought over. That Robinson had not trusted his commanders to the point of keeping them in the dark did not bode well for future relations.[7]

The Usurper

Another act of independence, this time against a different sort of authority, had been Robinson’s selection as the Sinn Féin candidate for East Tipperary-Waterford in the 1921 elections. Not that he cared particularly. As he was to make clear in the Dáil, he considered himself a soldier first and foremost. In his later Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Robinson made only a passing reference to how “the Volunteers asked me to stand for election.”[8]

Robinson went on to win the seat, although not entirely unopposed. Sinn Féin party headquarters had had another candidate in mind and were only told about the change in plans a few days before the election. Sinn Féin demanded a full explanation but, judging by how the subject did not feature again in the party minutes, never received one.

It was, in any case, a fait accompli. Central authority had been unable, according to historian Michael Laffan, to “influence the decisions of locally dominant Volunteers.” It had been unable to deter Robinson, either.[9]

The Logician

Robinson had arrived in Dublin on the eve of the Dáil debates in time to meet up with a few other IRA leaders who would go on to join him against the Treaty: Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows.

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

With GHQ identified as the problem, Robinson and O’Malley agreed with O’Connor’s suggestion of breaking away from their central command as soon as the Dáil debates were over, none of them having much hope in how the talks would go. The more cautious Mellows counselled them to wait and see how the situation developed and it was on that circumspect note that the band broke up for the night.

Of the group, O’Malley knew Robinson the best, having fought alongside him on a couple of occasions during the War of Independence. He was to leave a vivid depiction of Robinson on the night before the debates:

Seamus was dogged. His hair was tousled. He held his clenched fist underneath his underlip. Somehow he had sensed that one day something would go wrong…Seamus had too much of the French kind of inquiring, critical logic.[10]

O’Malley had witnessed a display of Robinson’s ‘French’ logic before, when the latter had objected to the IRA oath pledging allegiance to the Dáil. Robinson had been concerned that the Dáil might in the future settle for something short of a republic, a worry O’Malley had brushed off with a laugh. Somehow, Robinson was to refrain from a ‘told you so’.[11]

The Dreamer

The day after the Dáil approved the Treaty as feared, Robinson joined Mellows and some others for a gloomy little gathering. As one of the attendees, Robert Briscoe, later described the scene:

We were as despairing as only ardent young men can be; for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost and life had no more meaning. “What next? What next?” we asked each other and ourselves.

As none of them felt like remaining in Ireland to watch their country become re-enslaved, it was suggested they go abroad and find some other place in which to continue the fight against Perfidious Albion.

Robinson proposed India. There, they could pass on their experiences of guerrilla warfare which, when allied with the country’s vast population, would give these aspiring Wild Geese a chance to strike a substitute blow for freedom.

His suggestion provoked an outburst of genuine enthusiasm; so volatile are we Irish that it takes but a spark of courage to rekindle hope. However, it went no further because developments at home took another shape.

Despite Briscoe’s assurances to his reader that the ardour for such a farfetched scheme was sincere, it is unlikely that it was entirely serious or the whole session was anything more than an outlet to vent frustration.[12]

The Comrade

Robinson was to enjoy during this period a camaraderie with several leading figures in Ireland’s left-wing scene, such as Mellows and Roddy Connolly. The son of the Easter Rising martyr, Connolly had been one of those Robinson sent to Germany to procure weapons, as part of which he used his connections with the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) to obtain forged passports.[13]

james_connolly_swf
James Connolly

As a sign of how small the revolutionary social circles could be, Connolly’s sister, Ina, had known Robinson’s brother, Joseph, from their families’ time in Belfast. The family patriarch, James Connolly, would remember Séumas when they met during the Easter Rising, a wounded Connolly cheerfully calling out: “Help, Towney!” to the younger man as a reference to their common association with Belfast and Glasgow. Robinson would describe James with affection as a “man’s man in every fibre of his body and mind.”[14]

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Robinson and Roddy Connolly bonded but politics as well as shared history connected them. Connolly would refer to Robinson in a 1922 article as someone who “describes himself as a ‘Social Republican.’”[15]

Another association was Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), who met Robinson as part of a delegation from the Volunteers sometime between the Easter Rising and 1918. The subject of discussion was the possibility of greater cooperation between the ICA and the Volunteers. Although nothing came of these talks, Robbins remembered them as having been open and frank, and he felt he knew Robinson very well by the time of the Treaty.[16]

The Social Republican

mellows
Liam Mellows

Robbins gave no indication as to Robinson’s political orientation and Connolly did not elaborate on the label of ‘Social Republican’. More telling is a conversation Robbins had with Mellows in April 1922 during the latter’s occupation of the Four Courts. The two were discussing the merits of the Treaty – Robbins was for it – when Mellows asked as an aside: “Did you hear of all the soviets Seamus has established down in Tipperary?”

Robbins did not press for details, seeing it as an attempt by Mellows to change the subject. For his part, Mellows was uninformed as there is nothing to suggest that the wave of short-lived co-ops set up over the south of Ireland were anything other than local initiatives. Based as he was in Dublin at this time, Robinson would have been poorly placed to provide any input to these budding soviets even if there had been a central authority behind them. All the same, it was noteworthy that Mellows thought of Robinson as enough of a fellow traveller to be a plausible instigator of a social revolution.[17]

By the time Robinson spoke for himself in his 1957 BMH Statement, he preferred to muse on the inherent superiority of Catholic theology, the self-evident truth that Catholicism is the only infallible guide against the nihilistic horrors of atheism and how religious education was insufficiently taught in schools. Whatever youthful experimentation he had had with radical politics was left unspoken.[18]

The Subordinate

Close as he was to Mellows, O’Malley and Connolly, Robinson could not bridge the gap between him and the man whose opinion was to matter most amongst the Anti-Treatyites.

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Robinson first met Liam Lynch in October 1920 to discuss the problem of British patrols raiding into Co. Cork from their base in Cahir. As Cahir was in Robinson’s territory, Lynch informed the other O/C that stopping the enemy raids was his responsibility. Robinson replied that the same British unit had been also entering his brigade’s territory until a few months ago, unwisely adding: “They must be finding it less ungenial to raid Cork.”

Robinson was to insist that he had meant it as good-natured banter of the sort that he regularly exchanged with other IRA members. The attempt at humour, however, fell flat with Lynch. It was not an auspicious start to the relationship.

Eight months later, Robinson became frustrated at the occupation of the Four Courts, believing it foolhardy to keep the Anti-Treaty leadership cooped up like so many eggs in a basket. After a blazing row with Mellows and Rory O’Connor, Robinson left the Courts on the night of 27th June and departed from Dublin by train the next morning, just in time to escape the Free State attack that same day.

Bombarded_Four_Courts_Irish_Civil_War
The Free State attack on the Four Courts, June 1923

While sharing a train with Lynch and a number of other officers, Robinson argued intensely against the foolishness, as he saw it, of their policy for each IRA unit to fight on their own territory. As with the Four Courts occupation, this was far too passive for Robinson’s liking. Instead, he wanted the Anti-Treatyites to march in strength on Dublin and cut out the Free State cancer before it spread. The only man with the power to order this, however, was its cautious Chief of Staff, Lynch, who refused to hear of it.

The Strategist

Robinson continued to press his case. He told of how it had felt during the Easter Rising when Dublin stood alone and unaided. As if this was not plaintive enough, Robinson bore the responsibility of having promised the Dublin Brigade that he would return with his Tipperary men as soon he could. Lynch held firm, believing Dublin to be too dangerous.

As a compromise, Robinson suggested sending a hundred forerunners from his own brigade to the city to establish contact with the other IRA units there. If Lynch was shown how easy it could be done, then Robinson hoped the Chief of Staff would change his mind. Lynch agreed to the hundred-strong advance guard, and their success in reaching Dublin and the subsequent fighting there gave Robinson fresh hope. As late as December 1922, Robinson believed, the Anti-Treatyites had a chance at victory if they concentrated on Dublin.

free-state-troops-fire-on-the-four-courts3
Free State soldiers during the fighting in Dublin

But the lack of further aid from outside demoralised the Dublin IRA who refused to commit themselves to anything risky while they remained unsupported. Seeing the fight in the city become a dead-end, the Tipperary men withdrew. “For the second time in six years,” Robinson wrote mournfully, “Dublin was let down at a critical moment by the rest of the country.”[19]

The Ignored

Whether the Civil War would have been much different had Lynch followed Robinson’s proactive advice is debatable. It is unlikely, though, that it would have gone worse for the Anti-Treatyites. Not for the first time had Robinson failed to persuade when it would have been in the best interests of those involved to be persuaded.

Thomas Ryan, an officer in Robinson’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade, had noted how his O/C, despite his obvious intelligence, lacked the forceful character necessary to maintain authority over the Brigade’s flying columns formed during the War of Independence. Robinson was consequently regarded by the column-men as a purely nominal commander with no real input to offer.

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column

This was to prove detrimental for all concerned. Perhaps, as Ryan was to wonder, if Robinson had been able to assert himself, “we might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.”[20]

The same might have been said by the Anti-Treatyites in regards to the crucial opening months of the Civil War. It is perhaps darkly fitting that a man who had scorned the directives of his superiors for so long be repaid in kind.

The Man of Many Things

Passionately against the Treaty and his GHQ overseers in equal measure, Séumas Robinson gave one of the more forceful speeches in the Dáil debates. It called for the Volunteers to play a role in the unfolding politics to the extent that even a natural ally like Éamon de Valera distanced himself from it. Not content with that, Robinson went on to accuse two signatories of the Treaty, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, of nothing short of treason.

Robinson had already displayed an independent nature. An attempt to purchase weapons was made behind the backs of his commanding officers. In the 1921 elections he replaced one of candidates – whether on his own initiative or on the request of the local Volunteers – with the Sinn Féin central office receiving only a cursory notice. With such a rebellious streak, it is perhaps unsurprising that he bonded with a number of left-wing figures, although it is unclear as to what extent he shared their politics.

To the fore of the Anti-Treatyites in the build-up to the Civil War, Robinson was nonetheless marginalised when the conflict actually happened. His advice for a more aggressive policy was disregarded by Liam Lynch in what may have cost the Anti-Treatyites a chance at victory. Robinson was many things but he was not to be a winner.

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), p. 19

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 119, 223

[4] Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

[5] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92

[6] Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 39

[7] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), pp. 5-6

[8] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 77

[9] SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269 ; Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 337

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-2

[11] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 183

[12] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958), p. 141

[13] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[14] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919) p. 75 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1722), p. 7

[15] Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation), p. 51

[16] Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 203, 229

[17] Ibid, p. 232 ; a distinctly unsympathetic Dan Breen provided a brief first-hand account of the soviets in Tipperary in his BMH Statement (WS 1763), pp. 39-40

[18] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 7-17. Of limited use to an historian but it gives a good sense of the man’s style.

[19] Ibid, pp. 78-80, p. 102

[20] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783), pp. 116-7

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958)

Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation)

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

Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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

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

Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Sean, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1722

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

Other Source

SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269

 

Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

A Challenge to the People?

In Mullingar police barracks, on 4th August 1920, concerns, both personal and political, came to a head. When Constable Roarke was detailed to the four-man patrol for night duty through the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, he declined to carry a gun, saying that it was not necessary.

This refusal was in breach of recent regulations whereby two of the men in a patrol were to carry revolvers while the other pair took rifles. When the matter was reported to his senior officer, Roarke again abstained, explaining that for him to bear arms while on duty would be tantamount to a challenge to the people.

RIC_Enfield Rifles
RIC members with rifles

Roarke had had eight and a half years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a respectable length of time which would suggest he was not known to be of an insubordinate nature. But faced with Roarke’s obstinacy, the County Inspector told him he would be dismissed instantly unless he resigned first. Roarke responded by handing in his resignation before throwing off his police uniform.

Roarke was accompanied by a second policeman in Mullingar barracks, Constable McGovern. Being of the same view as Roarke and knowing he was detailed to the night patrol on the following night where he would be faced with the same choice, McGovern decided to cut to the chase and also resigned.

“It is also stated,” reported the Westmeath Guardian, “that further resignations are expected.”[1]

On the Outside

RIC_Group_photographThis exodus from the RIC prompted the Ballymore Council to pass a resolution at its monthly meeting on 19th August 1920, congratulating the policemen who had resigned. Its following resolution was telling: an agreement to strike a rate of pay for the upkeep of the Irish Volunteers, or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the organisation had renamed itself. After all, it was the IRA, not the RIC, who were now performing the policing duties in Ballymore as well as the rest of Co. Westmeath.[2]

The Volunteers who later recounted their experiences in their Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statements were sure that the redundancy of the RIC as a police force was due to the people losing confidence in them. The Volunteers, however, were able to maintain the cooperation of the public who increasingly took their disputes, mostly over land or petty robberies, to the IRA, now partnered with the Sinn Féin courts. Most work by the Volunteers throughout 1919 and early 1920 were concerned with such duties and, while tedious, they helped maintain a sense of purpose and discipline amongst the fledgling militia.[3]

The RIC seemed to assist in its own replacement by withdrawing from public duties. On 20th May, the Westmeath County Council read out a letter, received from the “Adjutant of the Westmeath Brigade of the Irish Republican Army”, offering the services of the Brigade in protecting the voting booths for the forthcoming local elections.

Most of the Council were in favour of accepting this offer. The only bone of contention was that the Council had already made arrangements with the men employed under the Direct Labour Scheme. As for the RIC, they had not been asked but as its members had refused to police the booths in other areas, there did not seem to be much point in asking. After some discussion, the Council agreed that the letter would be approved and the services of the Volunteers accepted.[4]

The election success of Sinn Féin in the June elections allowed its members to implement rebellion into policy through the local government boards that they now dominated. The newly-formed Westmeath County Council made its views clear when it passed a resolution recognising the authority of the Dáil Éireann.[5]

Limerick_RICOther boards passed harsh measures against those who still upheld Crown legitimacy. The Mullingar Board of Directors decided at its fortnightly meeting on 24th June to call on the District Hospital doctor to eject three RIC men at present in his hospital and to refuse admission under any circumstances to a member of that police force. The RIC was, after all, a “blue-coated army of occupation” which had “ceased to be a civil force, and they were now a military force.” RIC personnel needing treatment were to go to Mountjoy as “there was a military hospital where they could be treated.”[6]

Barrack Attacks

The war against the RIC in Westmeath was carried out with more than council resolutions and boycotts. The series of isolated shootings and arm-raids across Ireland snowballed into set-piece attacks and then finally a full-blown insurgency. Although never envisioned as such, this ‘gun and ballot’ approach was carried out with a success that later revolutionaries in Ireland could only dream of emulating.

Police barracks throughout the country were obvious targets for an increasingly confident and organised IRA, although the latter aspect should not be overstated at this stage given the numerous false starts that occurred.

hollyford
RIC barracks

Just after Christmas 1919, Seumas O’Meara, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, attended a GHQ meeting in Dublin. Told by his superiors that it was time for the IRA to become more active, O’Meara agreed to arrange an attack on a police barrack by early 1920. Upon returning to Athlone, O’Meara called a meeting of the other Brigade officers. It was decided that the barracks at Ballymore and Castletown Geoghegan would be targeted at night on 20th February.

Ballymore Barracks was in the territory of the Drumraney Battalion and so would be their responsibility. In this, they would be assisted by the Athlone Battalion under O’Meara’s direct command, while the Mullingar Battalion agreed to take on Castletown Geoghegan Barracks.

The Athlone Brigade

The Athlone Brigade encompassed a number of battalions: originally four before the Mullingar one was made a separate brigade, which took the Athlone battalions down to three. These in turn consisted of different companies. In theory, this gave O’Meara access to all the manpower involved. Making use of it, however, would prove to be a different matter.

Both operations withered on the vine. In preparation for the one against Ballymore Barracks, all rifles that were to be used by the Athlone battalion were forwarded to Drumraney where they would be collected at assembly points at a fixed time for the attack. The Volunteers were by now equipped with a number of shotguns and revolvers for close-up fighting but rifles were prized for the range they provided.

At the appointed date, O’Meara travelled with twenty selected men from the Athlone battalion to Drumraney and they were then guided by a local contact to their assembly point near the unsuspecting barracks. There they waited for the Drumraney battalion to arrive with the forwarded rifles at the agreed time of midnight.

No one came, however. By 6 am, the Athlone men had had enough and returned home. Without the rifles to keep the barracks’ garrison pinned down, their shotguns and revolvers would not have been enough.

Either confusion in the dark had been the cause for the no-show or, as O’Meara suspected, the Drumraney Volunteers had not wanted the trouble an attack on the barracks would bring on them.

The Mullingar men, for their part, had got drunk and managed to fell a tree to use as a road-block before calling off the mission.[7]

The Razing of the Barracks

RIC_Station_BadgeIt was not until mid-1920 that operations against RIC barracks by the Athlone Brigade were actually implemented. Even then, the majority of these were after their garrisons had been evacuated, making their destruction a relatively easy accomplishment.

One such set-piece was the razing of Brawney Barracks on 31st July along with the adjacent building that had formerly been used as a Crown courthouse. The fifteen men involved had choreographed their arson to a fine degree. Guards were placed on laneways and entrances to bar pedestrians from intruding. After entering the abandoned barracks through the back window, the Volunteers holed the roof on each side. The rafters and floor were saturated with fuel and then set ablaze. Their mission complete, the fifteen men dispersed in small groups, leaving Brawney Barracks to be thoroughly gutted by the fire.[8]

The majority of razed barracks in Co. Westmeath and the rest of the country were accomplished on Easter Sunday night in accordance to GHQ instructions. On one hand, the whole affair was little more than a propaganda exercise as the military value was negligible; after all, any country house could be converted into a replacement barracks by the Crown authorities.

But the widespread success of their operations was gratifying all the same for the Volunteers to read about in the newspapers. In any case, with the RIC in retreat, the IRA was allowed a greater freedom of movement in the country, a necessity for any guerrilla force.[9]

Streamstown

One of the exceptional times when a barrack was assaulted with its garrison still inside was on 25th July. Seumas O’Meara had announced at a Brigade staff meeting the need to take a more proactive approach and, after some discussion, Streamstown Barracks was decided upon as the one to attack.

A two-storey building of solid stone masonry, the barracks stood by itself beside a railway line and close to the Streamstown railway station. It had not been fortified with sandbags or barbed wire like some of the other remaining outposts but it had no windows at its rear or gable ends that could provide weak spots for an attacker and the windows at its front had recently been fitted with steel shutters. Complete with a garrison of seven constables and a sergeant, Streamstown Barracks presented a formidable challenge.

O’Meara drew up an elaborate set of plans: ladders would be placed against the windowless rear wall, by which selected men would climb onto the roof, which would be holed to allow for petrol to be poured through and set alight. The rest of the attack party would be busy keeping the garrison pinned down.

irish-volunteers2
Irish Volunteers/IRA

Upon hearing this outline, Thomas Costello, the Vice O/C of the Athlone Brigade, dismissed it as convoluted. According to Costello in his BMH Statement, he proposed an alternative to O’Meara: a number of the garrison had been observed to be in the habit of leaving the barracks each Sunday for Mass. These churchgoers would be waylaid and divested of their uniforms which would be donned by members of the assault party. The rest of the party would lie in wait outside the barracks to rush the door when it would be opened for the disguised Volunteers.

O’Meara reluctantly agreed to go along with this substitute plan while keeping his original one as a backup; at least, according to Costello. Neither O’Meara nor any of the other BMH Statements that cover the assault on Streamstown Barracks mention any disagreement on strategy.

Men from the Athlone, Moate and Drumraney Companies were selected to assist the local Volunteers with the attack. A newspaper report numbered them as sixty, O’Meara said sixty, though there were only weapons for about twenty to twenty-five of them.

On Sunday morning as planned, members of the attack party mingled with people on their way to Mass and, when the three policemen came along from church, they were held up and robbed of their uniforms.

Plan A

Thomas Costello and a second man, James Tormey, put on the captured uniforms, leaving their former owners bound up in a farmhouse. When Costello and Tormey rejoined O’Meara, they found him drilling the rest of the team on the road in the open. As if this was not blatant enough, the Volunteers squandered time getting into position and, when they had done so, did a poor job of hiding by constantly peering over walls and so forth. Costello could see the steel shutters being put in place over the windows of the barracks, confirming his suspicion that O’Meara had squandered the element of surprise.

Determined to see things through to the end all the same, Costello and Tormey cycled to the door of the barracks. On finding it locked, they knocked and were answered by a voice on the other side, presumably the sergeant’s, asking who was there. Costello replied: “Police.”

When asked which barracks he was from, Costello said the Ballymore one and that his business in Streamstown was to deliver some dispatches. Asked for his name, Costello said it was ‘Curran’ as he knew there was a Constable Curran in Ballymore.

Before he could congratulate himself on his cleverness, he was pressed for his full name but here Costello had no ready reply. Immediately, there were sounds on the other side of the door of hurried footsteps, rifles being loaded and a staircase being climbed. The obviously spooked garrison were readying for a full-on assault.

Plan B

Tormey had the presence of mind to grab Costello by his uniform’s cape and drag him to cover on the railway track just in time to avoid the explosion of a grenade that had been pushed through the loophole in a steel shutter. They also narrowly avoided friendly fire when the Drumraney Volunteers, from their position on a hill overlooking the barracks, mistook the two runners for genuine policemen.

With the opening gambit blown, the Volunteers along the railway embankment reverted to their original plan and opened fire. Their shots were concentrated on the front of the barracks, where the windows were and from where any return fire would likely come.

Meanwhile, O’Meara led six or seven men to the building’s rear where the lack of windows allowed for a blind-spot. There they positioned a homemade bomb constructed out of fruit-tins filled with gelignite, hoping to blow in the wall. The bomb failed to go off, possibly due to a damp fuse.

Aftermath

The assault lasted between half to three quarters of an hour before Volunteers withdrew from fear of enemy reinforcements and recognition of the futility of any further attempt. The Westmeath Independent has it that the retreat was upon hearing the hum of an airplane, an explanation not mentioned in any of the BMH Statements and so it is probably mistaken.

Though Streamstown Barracks frustrated the attempts to break it, its position was decided as untenable and its garrison was withdrawn to Mullingar the next day. Streamstown suffered the fate of all other exposed barracks and was razed later that day by the local Volunteers.

Ruined_RIC_barracks
Ruined RIC barracks

There were no fatalities on either side, though a member of the garrison was wounded and the Volunteers rued the loss of valuable ammunition. Costello was sufficiently outraged by what he saw as poor planning on O’Meara’s part that he submitted a detailed report to GHQ, sparing his O/C no mercy. According to Costello, the report was enough to have O’Meara suspended and replaced as O/C of the Athlone Brigade by Costello.

However, other sources make it clear that O’Meara’s demotion did not occur until 1921 and for reasons unrelated to the Streamstown attack. It can only be concluded that Costello was confused on this particular point.[10]

Not another Mail Raid

On 2nd August, the mail trains were raided at Fossagh Bridge on the Athlone-Moate line. In what was described as resembling a ‘Wild West stunt’, masked men loaded the mail onto motor cars and drove away. By itself, this was nothing new, the Westmeath Independent exuding an air of languid boredom in its coverage:

The raiding of mail trains and the confiscation of official correspondence has latterly become so common in Ireland as to excite nothing beyond a mere passing interest.[11]

What was a novelty, however, was how the hijackers had managed to raid not one but two trains. That there was only an interval of ten minutes between the trains as they passed in the opposite directions – the first from Dublin to Galway, the second being the Galway-Dublin one – allowed both to be robbed in quick succession.

The stolen mail was transferred to a safe location, after which it took a week to censor all the letters, each one being marked with ‘Passed by I.R.A. Censor’ before being dumped at Ballinahown Post Office.

There were two main points of interest uncovered. The first were the numerous letters to RIC members from their relatives, appealing to them to resign, which revealed the strain the force was now under.

The second was a dispatch from RIC Sergeant Thomas Martin Craddock, a mainstay of Athlone Barracks who was on temporary assignment to Mount Temple. Craddock had not been idle with his time. In his letter addressed to the head constable in Athlone, Craddock gave a survey of the whole position of the area, accompanied by a proposal on the best ways to combat the ongoing insurgency.[12]

Enemy Number One

Craddock was already known to the Westmeath IRA as a determined foe. To Seumas O’Meara, Craddock was a brute who would hold a gun to the heads of suspected Volunteers with the threat to shoot them if they did not talk. However, the one example we have of Craddock interrogating a suspect – a man attempting to smuggle a rifle under his coat for the IRA – was performed professionally enough.[13]

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers/IRA

One incident which Craddock could not have been responsible for was the maiming of Joseph Cunningham. According to O’Meara, Cunningham and some other Volunteers had ejected a number of the RIC from a pub in Mount Temple as part of the policing duties the IRA had undertaken. O’Meara claimed that some nights later, Craddock led an RIC posse in the beating of Cunningham and his brother, reducing Joseph to a “wreck of a man for ever afterwards.”[14]

A newspaper account dates the incident to 27th August. For reasons that will become clear, Craddock could not have been party to it. In other ways, the newspaper confirms details of O’Meara’s version. Cunningham, identified as an officer in the local Volunteers, was supervising the area when he ordered four men out of a pub. Cunningham was about to make his way home by bicycle when the four evictees knocked him down and kicked him unconscious. O’Meara was correct about the brutality of the assault and the damage done to the victim, Cunningham being left in a critical condition with the fear he would never walk again.

But the newspaper made no mention of the assailants being RIC men; indeed, it is unlikely that a sole Volunteer (there is no mention of anyone else with Cunningham) would have been enough to overawe a group of RIC men, however demoralised the force. The group of men also attacked immediately after they were forced from the pub, indicating that they were acting on a spur-of-the-moment vindictiveness with no great length of time in between as in O’Meara’s version.

Cunningham’s story is a warning about the dangers of community policing, especially with inexperienced officers but it is perhaps also a testament to Craddock’s status as the number one menace that, years later, his enemies would confuse him with having a role in any ill that had befallen a Volunteer.[15]

Sergeant Craddock

Forty-seven years of age and unmarried, Craddock had practically been born in the RIC, being the son of a head constable, and had given twenty-five years of service in addition to being a veteran of the Boer War.

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

His return from Mount Temple to Athlone, and his transfer to the Crimes Special Headquarters there, was unsettling enough for O’Meara, in an interview with Michael Collins, to try talking his way out of an order to target the leading intelligence officer in the Athlone garrison by painting a grim picture of what Craddock would do in retaliation.

Collins’ characteristic suggestion was to shoot Craddock first and anyone else later. To hammer the point home, Collins appointed O’Meara the Competent Military Authority for Co Westmeath, enabling O’Meara to order anyone to be killed without needing permission from GHQ first.[16]

Thus empowered and under pressure to accomplish something, O’Meara assembled a hit-team consisting of five or six Volunteers, including himself and Thomas Costello, for Craddock. Things were complicated by police patrols having been strengthened from four to eight, and by how cautiously the sergeant moved around Athlone. O’Meara counted six occasions, and Costello four, when the hit-team waited to ambush Craddock, only to be left disappointed when the sergeant never came.

This was typical enough in the War of Independence, where the tedium of waiting and the come-down of false starts were more the norm than the deeds of derring-do which would later fill the history books.

A Lucky Break

Another opening to catch Craddock on patrol on 21st August seemed a dud as he was to be leading a squad of eight, the sort of numbers that the hit-team did not care to risk confronting. As the team made their way back home, Craddock was spotted entering the Comrades of the Great War Club on King Street, Athlone, at 11:45 pm.

athlone2
Athlone

Thomas Costello was in the shop where he worked when another Volunteer dropped by to tell him where Craddock was. Costello immediately gathered the rest of the team except for O’Meara, and they lay in wait outside the Club, armed with revolvers.

Craddock indulged himself with a few drinks at the Club bar while he watched a billiard match. Half an hour after midnight, he decided to leave with a colleague, Constable Denis Mahon. Mahon was first through the door. The moment Craddock stepped out onto the street, a shot rang out in the dark, followed by several more. The two men rang up the street in the direction of the nearby military barracks, Craddock making a few paces before falling to the ground under the hail of bullets.

To the Bitter End

Though in great pain, the bloodied-but-unbowed sergeant drew his revolver from where he lay and fired at the retreating backs of his assailants as they made their escape up King Street. It was later estimated that Craddock had managed three shots as a bullet was found in the wall of a gable of a barber’s shop, another had passed through a window and a third had had the force to penetrate the door of another hairdressing establishment where it was found lodged in the woodwork of the interior.

Other bullet-marks found on the buildings in the street indicated that the assassins had fired back in reply while in flight. Other than a bullet through the trousers of one of the gunmen, the team got away unscathed.

Mahon went looking for help while others from the Club did all they could for the wounded man. Craddock was carried to the military barracks where he died half an hour later with Mahon by his side.

The coroner found a number of wounds on the body: one from a bullet on the right side of the abdomen, superficial burns on the front of the abdomen from the same shot and two holes on either side of his shoulder from where a second bullet had passed cleanly through. The bullet that had entered the abdomen was found in the left side of the pelvis where it had fractured the bone and it was this that had caused Craddock’s death from shock and haemorrhaging.

AthloneBarracks
Athlone Barracks

Mahon was unharmed from the fray. According to Costello, he had been left alone as the team had nothing against him. O’Meara, however, has it that one of the shooters had aimed three times at Mahon, only for the gun to jam. Either way, Costello was to regret that Mahon was untouched as the constable “turned out to be a right villain and excelled himself in ill-treating people by beating them up.” After the trauma of watching his companion die, this maliciousness on Mahon’s part is perhaps unsurprising.

Craddock’s murder made a total of seven RIC men killed over the weekend throughout Ireland. The fatalities came from all ranks: DI Oswald Swanzy (targeted for his suspected role in the slaying of Tomás Mac Curtain), two sergeants and four constables.

The jury at the inquest into Craddock’s death expressed their heartfelt sympathy to his relatives but otherwise delivered only a muted verdict of “death…by persons unknown.”[17]

The Changing of the Guard

Reflecting upon the rapidly changing situation in Ireland, the Westmeath Independent offered guarded praise for a police force whose time had come to an end even if the force itself had not:

Even the Irish police, where they can, have hurried out of the service. With all that may be said against it, up to now it was, anyway, an Irish service, manned by Irish men instinct with Irish feeling though often obliged to undertake work through mistaken loyalty that was painfully disagreeable. Still they managed up to now, not withstanding the violence of many agitations, to remain on fairly good terms with their countrymen.

It is an Irish service no longer. It is being daily recruited from England. The Irishmen in the service feel the change. They remain only until they can get out.[18]

The new blood in the RIC alluded to were the influx of ex-soldiers that would become known as the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. While they succeeded in stiffening the spine of a beleaguered RIC, they also hastened its end as a community police force and its transformation into a nakedly militarised one. But while it removed any moral authority from the RIC, it was also to make life a lot harder for the Volunteers.

crossley-tender
Black-and-Tans

Under the renewed pressure, the policing by the Volunteers came to an end.[19] Survival became the priority. More Volunteers went on the run to avoid the round-ups and mass arrests as well as responding with an increased level of violence of their own.

It was not to be the end of the War in Co. Westmeath. It was, however, the end of the RIC of old.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2015)

 

See also: A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1

 

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 06/08/1920

[2] Westmeath Independent, 21/08/1920

[3] Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), p. 7-8 ; Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), p. 5 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH /  WS 1503), pp. 12-3

[4] Westmeath Examiner, 22/05/1920

[5] Westmeath Independent, 12/06/1920

[6] Ibid, 26/06/1920

[7] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), pp. 19-20 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 14

[8] Westmeath Independent 07/07/1920

[9] O’Meara, pp. 20-1 ; Costello, p. 7

[10] O’Meara, p. 25-7 ; Costello, pp. 10-2 ; O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), pp. 12-4 ; Daly, David (BMH /  WS 1337), pp. 13-5 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500) ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 15-6 ; Westmeath Independent 31/07/1920

[11] Westmeath Independent, 07/08/1920

[12] Costello, pp. 12-3 ; O’Meara, p. 25 ; O’Connor, pp. 11-2

[13] O’Meara, p. 28 ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 13-4

[14] O’Meara, p. 28

[15] Westmeath Independent, 28/08/1920

[16] O’Meara, p. 29

[17] O’Meara, p. 30-31 ; Costello, p. 13 ; Westmeath Independent 28/08/1920

[18] Westmeath Independent, 31/07/1920

[19] Costello, p. 8

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Costello, Thomas, WS 1296

Daly, David, WS 1337

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Westmeath Examiner

22/05/1920

Westmeath Guardian

06/08/1920

Westmeath Independent

12/06/1920

6/06/1920

07/07/1920

31/07/1920

07/08/1920

21/08/1920

28/08/1920

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

The Third Man

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The Third Tipperary Brigade was among the most prominent in the Irish War of Independence. Ernie O’Malley accredited it with having created the fighting spirit of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the first place, to the point of other units preferring to fight it out to the bitter end if surrounded rather than a prudent withdrawal in order to live up to the martial idea of the Third Tipperary Brigade. Séumas Robinson was one of the three men O’Malley attributed with creating that bold if troublesome tradition, the others being Dan Breen and Seán Treacy.[1]

All three became legends in their own lifetimes. Breen’s memoir guaranteed his fame to new generations. Judging by its re-prints, it remains in popular demand as well as much-thumbed by historians. Treacy did not survive the War but the memory of his exploits earned him the attention of writers looking for an Achilles to their Homer.

In contrast, Robinson has been treated as the middle child of the three by historians. Worth a few page numbers in an index, maybe, but not much more than that, with little desire to better understand the part that he played.

Robinson’s role in the Third Tipperary Brigade was a difficult one, and one not easily appreciated by onlookers. As Brigade O/C, he was a middle-manager in the IRA: responsible for the behaviour of his subordinates who did not always respect him, while answerable to his superiors who, in the words of O’Malley, “admired but…did not like him.”[2]

It is to explore these complicated, sometimes contradictory, feelings inspired by this complex, driven man that this article aims to do.

First Impressions

The Third Tipperary Brigade was formed in October 1918, with Robinson elected as Brigade O/C, Treacy as Vice Commandant, and Breen as Quartermaster. According to Breen in his memoir, Robinson’s promotion had been decided for him beforehand by himself and Treacy.

A rising star in the Volunteers, Treacy had been asked by Michael Collins to take the post of full-time Volunteer Organiser for Tipperary. However, Treacy was unsure as to whether he could commit to both that and the role of O/C. He was also concerned that neither he nor Breen had the social standing or the finances.

They were about to request that GHQ send them someone more suitable to take over, when they heard of a recent arrival to Tipperary who had been a participant in the Easter Rising, and who was currently working as a farmhand at the house of Eamon O’Dwyer, another organiser for the Tipperary Volunteers.

Sean_Treacy_circa_1919
Seán Treacy

Upon meeting Robinson at O’Dwyer’s farmhouse, Treacy and Breen decided that he would be sufficient for the part. As Robinson was a newcomer to Tipperary and dependant on his farmhand work for money, he was a strange choice if social standing and finances were so important.

A few days later, Breen and Treacy met Robinson again at O’Dwyer’s and asked him if he would agree to take the post. Robinson heard them out while busy milking. When he was done with that, instead of staying to talk, Robinson took the milk-pall and left, saying only over his shoulder that he would be prepared to do whatever they asked of him but he had to get back to his job. Robinson was later elected as O/C on Breen’s proposal which Treacy seconded. The man of the hour was absent as Robinson was serving out a sentence in Belfast jail.[3]

Robinson could hardly have been thrilled to read of himself as a bumptious drone who had accepted a figurehead O/C post that he had otherwise been indifferent to. In his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Breen went further in describing Robinson’s intended part to have been that of a ‘stooge’ or ‘yes-man.’[4]

Robinson-Treaty-Breen-Brennan
Left to Right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Michael Brennan

Stooge?

Breen’s version is supported in part by that of another Brigade member, Thomas Ryan, who also attributed Robinson’s rise to the prestige of his 1916 record and to the behind-the-scenes prompting of Treacy. While Robinson held the title, Ryan was in no doubt that it was Treacy who held the power. While not present at the election, Ryan suspected that it had been Treacy who had suggested Robinson in the first place.[5]

This belief is corroborated by someone who did attend the election: Edmond McGrath. According to McGrath, Treacy turned down offers of the command in favour of Robinson, whose praises Treacy sang to all concerned. Other than giving Treacy, not Breen, the leading role in pushing for Robinson, McGrath’s account tallies with Breen’s.

breen.jpg
Dan Breen

However, Breen did wildly exaggerate Robinson’s status as an outsider. Though McGrath did not know Robinson personally at the time of the election, he was already aware of the considerable time Robinson had spent in organising the Volunteers. Michael Davern went as far as attributing the considerable growth of the Brigade to Robinson’s energy.[6]

Treacy’s desire for another man at the O/C helm can be explained by a need to delegate his workload, a task he would not have entrusted to someone he thought incapable of it. By the time of mid-1920, the two had become, in the opinion of Ernie O’Malley, an “ideal combination” (not least in finding ways to tease O’Malley).[7]

In underestimating Robinson’s qualifications and experience, Breen was being either catty or woefully uninformed.

Eamon O’Dwyer

A native of Belfast, Robinson had grown up in Glasgow and had joined the branch of the Irish Volunteers there. In 1916, he was told to report to Dublin for the upcoming Easter Rising. Despite its failure and his consequential imprisonment, his participation and the contacts he made in jail were to stand him in good stead in the years to come.

Post-prison, Robinson moved to Tipperary to help organise the Volunteers there. As far as he was concerned, the only place for him now was Ireland. Returning to Belfast, however, did not seem to have been of interest to him. Besides, he had already made a contact in Tipperary through a prison acquaintance: Eamon O’Dwyer.[8]

O’Dwyer was by then a veteran activist in South Tipperary, having been involved in a daisy-chain of nationalist societies such as the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, and the Gaelic League. A quiet, behind-the-scenes player, O’Dwyer was content to work among the grassroots to ensure the continuation of his beloved movement.[9]

This work included talent-spotting Robinson for the Brigade. The two of them had shared many discussions in Reading Jail on what they would do when free. O’Dwyer had aired his dream of creating a community centre for Irish nationalism. Robinson loved the idea, and readily accepted the offer to come and help out.[10]

Robinson arrived at O’Dwyer’s newly acquired house in Kilshenane, Co. Tipperary, on January 1917, in the midst of a snowstorm.[11] If Robinson was going to be staying in Ireland for the upcoming fight, he might as well go to where he was wanted.

Honesty, Hustle and Zeal

The priority of the Volunteers in the years after the Rising was the acquisition of weapons, largely by robbery. As part of this, Robinson and O’Dwyer led a break-in at the house of a British army major who lived locally, where they were confronted by an irate major and his female secretary. A firm believer in civilian property rights, Robinson offered to let the secretary show them around the house while searching for weapons to ensure that nothing else was taken.[12]

Robinson earned his keep at Kilshenane House as a farmhand. A city slicker, he made up for his lack of rural know-how with “honesty, hustle and zeal.”[13] It was fortunate that he had these virtues in abundance, for his work often left something to be desired. The resulting ribbing over one disastrous attempt to tackle up a donkey lasted long after Robinson was made Brigade O/C, which he took in good humour.[14]

Robinson also spent time back in prison for his involvement in the Volunteers. These periods of detention at His Majesty’s pleasure may have been inconvenient, but they did give his peers the chance to see his implacable character up close. At Stafford Gaol, he was remembered as a “small, little man of steel with the russet stubble and the shy, retiring manner” who, within days, became known to staff and inmates for his courteous but firm refusal to sign any of the prison paperwork put before him.[15]

If some of his colleagues would find him irritating in the years to come, for now it was enough that he annoyed the enemy.

Soloheadbeg

On 21 January, 1919, Robinson, Treacy and Breen were part of a team that ambushed a cart of gelignite on its way to Soloheadbeg quarry. Escorting the cart were two officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and in the resulting confrontation, both were shot dead.

Not everyone in the revolutionary movement was overly impressed with the deed. Breen bitterly recalled the cold-shouldering from otherwise ardent republicans he and the others received in the aftermath.[16] Nonetheless, the ambush has been established as the official start of the War of Independence. Much has been written about the ambush; its importance here is how its two main participants, Breen and Robinson, both took the opportunity in their later accounts to belittle the other.

In Breen’s memoir, the details of the ambush were worked out between him and Treacy, with what Robinson might have thought being unimportant.[17] Breen went further in his BMH Statement in saying that Robinson had not been consulted at all about the ambush plans, and that neither he nor Treacy had told Robinson about their agreed plan to shoot the policemen whatever happened. This was not because of distrust, but because they did not think it was any of his business to know – an extraordinary thing to say about the Brigade O/C. Robinson did not join the rest of the party in their stakeout of the prepared ambush site until a couple of days before the ambush took place, meaning he could have missed it entirely had the gelignite escort came earlier, and he was so far removed from the action that he did not learn that the RIC officers had been killed until he almost back home.[18]

In Robinson’s account, needless to say, he was heavily involved in the ambush, in its planning and the execution. In this, Robinson is supported by other accounts. Michael Davern, later acting O/C of the Brigade, remembered seeing Robinson ten days before the ambush “elated with obviously suppressed excitement” at what promised to be the first Brigade operation. Anxious for its success and for people he could trust, Robinson invited Davern to join. Davern pleaded off but was able to mobilise four others instead. Like Treacy, Robinson was not adverse at delegating.[19]

One of these four, Patrick O’Dwyer, described who Breen and Treacy emerged from hiding to challenge the RIC escort to halt, with himself and Robinson grabbing at the reins of the cart-horse, before the officers attempted to open fire and were fatally shot instead, neatly matching Robinson’s record of the event. According to O’Dwyer, one of the policemen had been aiming his carbine at either him or Robinson before he was shot, making it clear that Robinson was risking his life as much as anyone.[20] Breen’s portrayal of Robinson as a mere tag-along must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Robinson was not much more complimentary towards Breen. The party was lying in wait for the escort when Breen became agitated and impatient to rush out as soon as he could, prompting Robinson to make a mental note “that that man should never be put in charge of a fight.”[21]

Michael Collins

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

Both Robinson and Breen would insist later that the Soloheadbeg ambush had not been intended to be a simple robbery, but to provoke the public mood into war. If so, they got their wish. The ambush, along with the dramatic rescue of their captured colleague Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station, made the situation in South Tipperary too tense for Robinson, Treacy and Breen. Together, they left to take refuge in Dublin. Whatever Robinson thought of Breen and vice versa, they were to be stuck with each other for a while.

In Dublin, Robinson was to make the acquaintance of Michael Collins. It was not to be a harmonious working relationship. What aggrieved Robinson most was the failure of the first planned assault on Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Collins assigned Robinson and Treacy to the last street corner before Dublin Castle on the route Lord French was to take from Dún Laoghaire. Should Lord French have survived the assassination attempts set up along the way, Robinson and Treacy were to ensure that the job was finally done.

After waiting until the latest estimated time Lord French was supposed to come, Robinson and Treacy saw instead Collins and a number of other senior officers walking towards them. Collins laughingly told the pair that Lord French was not coming after all. As far as Robinson was concerned, Collins had set up a dummy attack in the presence of other Volunteer leaders in order to give the impression of himself as the one leading the fight in the field.[23]

Robinson returned to Tipperary, refusing to join in any of the other attempts on Lord French’s life. The relationship with Breen also worsened. To Breen’s dismay, Robinson was no longer as amenable as before, to the extent of him issuing countermanding orders to those Treacy and Breen had already given to the Brigade. If Robinson had been intended to be a puppet, then he was becoming one determined to pull his own strings.[23]

It took both Treacy and Breen to persuade him to return to Dublin for what turned out to be the one assassination attempt that was followed through. Lord French survived, the only fatality being that of one of the attackers, Martin Savage, whose death affected Robinson deeply at the time, telling the news to others in a “broken voice.”[24]

Martin_savage
Martin Savage

Robinson’s impression of Collins as self-serving at others’ expense stayed with him. Three years later, Robinson was denouncing Collins during the Treaty debates in the Dáil as someone who had taken no risks but had urged others to do so.[25]

The dislike was reciprocated. Shortly after his signing of the Treaty, Collins ruefully joked to Eamon O’Dwyer that bringing Robinson to Tipperary had been O’Dwyer’s worse mistake.[26]

Ernie O’Malley

Another GHQ mover-and-shaker whose acquaintance Robinson met was Ernie O’Malley. Robinson and Treacy first met him in Tipperary town, May 1920, at an officers’ class O’Malley was running; he was on one of his periodic trips across the country to better organise the various brigades. This time it was the turn of South Tipperary, which was the scene of a strong British military presence; Robinson and Treacy had had to fight their way through an enemy patrol on route to Tipperary town.[27]

O’Malley’s and Robinson’s memories of each other were generally respectful. The working relationship was comfortable enough for O’Malley to wish that Robinson had been made Commander of the First Southern Division instead of Liam Lynch.[28] For Robinson, O’Malley was a welcome change from the usual armchair generals who made up GHQ.[29]

omalley
Ernie O’Malley

The two men had much in common. Both had literary tastes and aspirations, though it was only O’Malley who went the extra step and became known as a writer. Both were well-travelled throughout Ireland. Both were thinkers and organisers but unafraid to risk their lives in a fight. Both were serious-minded, hard-working revolutionaries, but who could be considered aloof and uninspiring by their subordinates.

Both ended up taking the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, an event Robinson had inadvertently predicted when discussing the newfangled IRA oath of allegiance with O’Malley and Treacy. Robinson had disapproved of the oath in how in it transferred authority from the army to Dáil, which might in the future accept something less than a republic. O’Malley and Treacy had laughed at the absurdity. Three years later, the Civil War would break out on that very issue. Robinson might have struck O’Malley as a bit of an Eeyore but, in this case, he had been a Cassandra.[30]

The Man Who Was Not There?

Together, Robinson, O’Malley and Treacy helped spearhead a series of coordinated attacks by the Third Tipperary Brigade on RIC barracks in South Tipperary. Not all of these were successful but they showed the ability of the Brigade to carry out sustained operations, a discipline nurtured by Robinson and Treacy, and a testament to their combined leadership.

Two of these assaults, on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks, are particularly noteworthy. Breen claimed in his memoir to have participated in them both. Robinson was to repeatedly insist in his BMH Statement that Breen had not even been present and had lied in writing that he had in order to inflate his reputation.[31]

hollyford
Hollyford RIC Barracks, Co. Tipperary

A possible tie-breaker in this controversy is Ernie O’Malley, who helped lead the attacks on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks. O’Malley wrote accounts of his own, first in his 1936 memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, and later a series of articles in the mid-1950s that were published under Raids and Rallies.

In O’Malley’s accounts of the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, Breen does not appear in either. Had such a well-known figure like Breen been present at either Hollyford or Drangan, it would have been strange for O’Malley to have not made a mention of it, like he did of Breen’s presence at the assault on the Rearcross barracks, which Robinson did not deny.[32]

Thus we must tentatively conclude that Breen did lie about having been present at the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, and that Robinson was entirely correct in this.

Lepidus?

The extent in which Robinson held authority in his position as Brigade O/C was questioned by contemporaries. One such was Thomas Ryan, a witness to much that went on in the Brigade and a member of the second of the two Flying Columns which had been formed in late 1920.

What Ryan had to say about Robinson’s leadership after the founding of the Columns is worth quoting at length:

From the time the Columns began operations, Robinson remained in and about the Brigade Headquarters…taking no active part in the work of the Columns, and so was not regarded by the men of the Columns as having any effective control of them…From this, it may be seen that we looked upon Robinson’s position as Brigade Commander as purely nominal.[33]

This passage has been cited as proof that, as a leader, Robinson was aloof and uninvolved. However, Ryan was talking from the perspective of someone who was part of a very particular type of fighting unit, and his comments should be taken to reflect the changing nature of the IRA as the War progressed rather than Robinson’s leadership as a whole.

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column, South Tipperary

There was still much to do for the rest of the Brigade, over which Robinson continued to act as a hands-on O/C. In February 1921, Robinson was present with an ambush party alongside a railway embankment to catch a troop train. When the train did not arrive, Robinson gave a lecture before the men dispersed on the need for more activity for the War.[34]

During the Truce, in the expectation that the ceasefire would be temporary, Robinson funded an (ultimately failed) attempt to purchase from Germany the type of weapons, like trench mortars, that would help crack the nut that had been frustrating the IRA: British army garrisons.[35] Whatever the Columns thought of him, there was still a war to be fought, and he intended to continue doing his part.

Roads Not Taken

However, it does seem that Robinson struggled with maintaining the respect of his subordinates. Even Michael Davern, who was close enough to Robinson to introduce himself as Robinson’s right-hand man, had no compunction about talking back to him in a row over sloppy watchmen whom Davern had been responsible for.[36]

Another close colleague who did not automatically defer to Robinson was Eamon O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer’s discontent with the turn the revolution had taken was made embarrassingly public after the death of Seán Treacy in a shoot-out in Dublin in October 1920. Found on Treacy’s body was a letter by O’Dwyer complaining about the IRA use of ambushes, which quickly became grist for the British propaganda mill. Asked by Robinson to investigate O’Dwyer as a possible malcontent, Robinson stood by his friend, reporting O’Dwyer back as a man of integrity.[37]

It was a generous act of loyalty on Robinson’s part, for O’Dwyer had also been actively undermining the war effort that was Robinson’s responsibility to maintain. O’Dwyer had been receiving calls from the families of Volunteers who were participating in the ambushes that had become the IRA tactic of choice, pleading for O’Dwyer to withdraw their men out of harm’s way. Concerned as to how much longer the War could be maintained anyway, O’Dwyer increasingly acceded to their wishes, and recalled fighting men back to their homes. When Robinson came to his house for an explanation, an angry and weary O’Dwyer refused to budge on the issue.[38]

Humane as O’Dwyer’s actions may have been, he was making Robinson’s job a harder one, with Robinson lacking the iron to discipline or dismiss his friend. It was a weakness in Robinson’s nature that Thomas Ryan noted and regretted. For all his disregard of Robinson as a leader, Ryan still respected him for his intelligence. Had the men in the Columns taken Robinson’s advice more often, and had Robinson made more of an effort to bond with them, then “they might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.” But the fault in why they did not was due, in Ryan’s opinion, to Robinson not possessing a “more forceful character.”[39]

An example of one of these roads-not-taken was the choice of Seán Hogan as a Column Commander. Robinson had wanted Ryan in the role instead, and tried to persuade Ryan to put himself forward, but Ryan, content that Hogan would be suited for the role, refused. When Hogan proved to lack the necessary aggression to properly lead a Column, Robinson’s misgivings came back to haunt Ryan.[40]

As with the IRA oath of allegiance and its future repercussions, it was a case of Robinson understanding a situation better than anyone else but lacking the ability to lead people who did not already want to be led.

Maintaining Discipline

The raids and rallies that have dominated the public perception of the War were only a facet in a wider picture. There was the intelligence war, with Volunteers urged to be on constant watch for informants. Robinson supervised the execution by shooting of an unmasked spy. This was a relatively straightforward case of an enemy agent tricked into blowing his own cover.[41]

Less obvious was the request made to Robinson by a Mid-Tipperary officer for permission to drive out a local family, the Hunts, so that their land could be divided up between Volunteers. As an afterthought, it was argued that, as a Protestant, Mrs de Vere Hunt, was too much of a potential spy. Robinson was not one to fall for such clumsy sectarian posturing, and instead gave orders that the Hunts were not to be troubled. Some months later, Mrs Hunt would prove the rumours entirely wrong by passing on information to the Volunteers from British officers who had dined at her house.[42]

thurles
Thurles, Co. Tipperary

About midsummer of 1920, Robinson felt the need to issue a request to his Brigade members (an order would have been too hard to enforce) that anyone caught inside a house where civilians were living should wait until outside before shooting. To Robinson’s dismay, many of his men “thought that the civilian population was at best a secondary consideration.” In response to this disturbingly blasé attitude, Robinson did his best to prevent the worst from happening.[43]

His concern for civilians in the crossfire caused him to veto a proposal to raze five houses of “wellknown Unionists” in retaliation to the blowing up of houses by Crown forces in May 1921. Robinson’s stated reason was a refusal to stoop to enemy level. That people uninvolved in the War might have suffered may have also been a reason for Robinson’s reticence. After all, terms such as ‘Unionist’ were used rather liberally by Volunteers, often to indicate anyone who was a convenient target.[44]

Cattle-Raids and Rallies

Respect for civilian rights and property did not extend to the ‘IRA levy’ which was carried out on local farmers. Michael Davern was involved in the seizing of cattle belonging to ‘Unionists’ who had failed to pay the “very small” amounts demanded. Any money obtained in this process was intended to go into Brigade funds.[45] However, not every Volunteer was above exploiting this revolutionary racket for personal gain, a human failing that Robinson was not naïve about.

Near the end of July 1921, a court-martial was arranged for several Volunteers caught cattle-rustling. Robinson presided over the improvised court which found the defendants guilty. As for sentencing, the death penalty was suggested, though Robinson was persuaded against this on the basis that it might undermine Brigade morale. Instead, the considerably less severe punishment of supervised unpaid work was issued.[46]

As law and order collapsed throughout Ireland, the IRA brigades found themselves in the position of the authorities they had been fighting against. Brigade commanders were obligated to fill the vacuum they had helped create. Robinson took this new role of improvised policeman as seriously as he had taken that of local warlord, determined to curb the excesses of his subordinates. However badly the civilian populace of South Tipperary suffered from the War of Independence, it may have been much worse without the standards set by Robinson.

Conclusion

Séumas Robinson was elected O/C for the Third Tipperary Brigade, partly on the urging of Séan Treacy, but also on the basis of his participation in the Easter Rising and his considerable activism for the South Tipperary Volunteers. From there, he set about helping to create one of the more prominent brigades in the War of Independence.

A complex man, capable of the extremes of warm camaraderie and unreasoning hatred, Robinson worked with many of the leading figures in the revolution: with Michael Collins he had nothing but undisguised contempt for, Ernie O’Mally a respectful working relationship, Seán Treacy a fruitful partnership, and Eamon O’Dwyer unqualified loyalty even when O’Dwyer undermined him.

Robinson expected much from his subordinates, and did his best to rein in their baser desires, while sometimes struggling to elicit respect from them. A renowned brigade, a determination to fight for what he saw as a just cause and a respected civilian populace were the hallmarks of this proud, principled and often prickly man.

 

First posted on The Irish Story (17/05/2014)

 

See also:

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

[1] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 432

[2] O’Malley, p. 183

[3] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), pp. 21-2, 30

[4] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 21

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 116

[6] McGrath, Edmond (BMH / WS 1393), p. 6 ; Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 10

[7] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 180

[8] Robinson (BMH / WS 1721), p. 67

[9] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 54-55

[10] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1403), pp. 62-3

[11] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 3-4

[12] Ibid, p. 25

[13] Ibid, p. 4

[14] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 7

[15] Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996), p. 190

[16] Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, p. 40

[17] Ibid, p. 31-32

[18] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), pp. 21-23

[19] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 15

[20] O’Dwyer, Patrick H. (BMH / WS 1432), p. 11 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 28-29

[21] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 28

[22] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[23] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 26

[24] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 82

[25] Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers,P7a/209(2), p. 85

[26] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), p. 95

[27] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 179

[28] Ibid, p. 432

[29] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p.39

[30] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp. 182-3

[31] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 87 as an example

[32] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 107-110 (Hollyford), pp. 112-118 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp.  189-195 (Hollyford), pp. 200-203 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), pp. 21-41 (Hollyford), pp. 42-60 (Drangan)

[33] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  pp. 116-117

[34] Keane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1300), pp. 5-6

[35] Beaumont, Seán (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[36] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), pp. 33, 45

[37] Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), pp. 116-7

[38] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 83-4

[39] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 117

[40] Ibid, p. 32, 79-80

[41] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 114-5

[42] Ibid, pp. 35-36

[43] Ibid, p. 57

[44] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 58

[45] Ibid

[46] Keating, James (BMH / WS 1220), pp. 13-15

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Seán, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1739

Davern, Michael, WS 1348

Keane, Patrick, WS 1300

Keating, James, WS 1220

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGrath, Edmond, WS 1393

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1403

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Books

Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006)

Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996)

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

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

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

Other Material

Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209(2)