Out of the Shadows: Rory O’Connor in the Easter Rising and After, 1916-9 (Part I)

A Close Shave

Something was up – Lieutenant Laurence Nugent knew that at least. After all, his superior officer, Captain T.J. Cullen, had received word, in the lead-up to the Easter Week of 1916, to ready their men in preparation for a freight of rifles that was said to be on its way to Ireland.

Nugent and Cullen were in something of an odd position. When the Irish Volunteers split almost two years previously, in September 1914, both had elected to go with the majority and form the National Volunteers. But, though training continued as before, the old spark was lost. Members began dropping out of the ranks, never to return.

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A parade of the National Volunteers, with John Redmond (left, holding flag)

When Éamonn Ceannt addressed a Dublin parade of the National Volunteers in August 1915 on behalf of the rival Irish Volunteers, both Cullen and Nugent were receptive to a possible change to their stupefying pace. There was the chance of a shipment of guns and ammunition into the country, Ceannt confided, too large for his organisation to handle alone. Would the National Volunteers be interested in taking part in any action – and probably soon – for the freedom of Ireland?

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Éamonn Ceannt

Every man present agreed and, from then on, the National Volunteers in Dublin could train with a goal in mind. But, by the end of the week before that of Easter 1916, news filtered down that the promised rifles were not coming after all. Orders for an uprising were cancelled, and that appeared to be that.

Nugent was on his way to work on Easter Tuesday when he chanced upon a group of women and children watching from the top of a street leading to St Stephen’s Green, where a man – so Nugent was told – lay dead inside the park railings. Nugent pressed forward to see for himself and was ordered back by the British soldiers who were occupying the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the park. Bullets were whining through the air, and Nugent tried warning the onlookers about the danger, but they paid him no attention, seeming more curious than concerned about the battle unfolding in their city.

hp_16Nugent seems to have been equally blasé in his own way, for he continued on to his shop at 9 Lower Baggot Street. When Captain Cullen came in with another man who was – incongruously enough – carrying half a ham and some mutton, Nugent sent them upstairs, out of sight from his customers, for he recognised Cullen’s companion as Rory O’Connor, a leading figure in the Irish Volunteers.

“That was a close shave,” said Cullen, taking off O’Connor’s hat. As Nugent examined the hat, he found it had been holed through on either side. Looking at its owner, he saw a burnt break in O’Connor’s thick black hair, made by, say, a passing bullet.[1]

Roderic Ignatius Patrick O’Connor

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Rory O’Connor

In the years to come, O’Connor was to leave a striking impression on many who had known him. “He was a smallish, very dark man, dark skin, blue jaws,” remembered Geraldine Dillon (née Plunkett), “he had to shave twice a day and had such a deep voice that it seemed to slow his speech, yet he had great charm.” This charisma worked itself on her brothers, George and Jack, both of whom followed him unquestioningly.[2]

Another Plunkett sibling on close terms with O’Connor was Joseph. For someone like O’Connor, looking to strike a blow for Irish freedom, this connection meant a lot, for Joseph Plunkett sat on the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The family property at Larkfield, Co. Dublin, became the base for the growing number of young Irishmen united in their desire to overthrow British rule in Ireland.

As part of this, O’Connor worked with George and Jack on their brother’s staff, along with Michael Collins – another rising star in the revolutionary underground – and Tommy Dillon, Geraldine’s future husband. O’Connor was put in charge of engineering, a role which suited his talents.[3]

He had worked on the engineering staff of the then Midland Great Western Railway in Ireland, before emigrating to Canada in 1910. There, he had been employed in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad, according to the estimations of his brother, Norbert.

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Canadian Northern Railway under construction

In 1915, O’Connor returned to Ireland. His closeness to the Plunketts was such that Norbert believed he had come back “at the request of Joseph Plunkett.”[4]

Making Contacts

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John Redmond

Having said that, there is not much to indicate that O’Connor even knew Joseph Plunkett at that stage. Also, his motive for returning seems to have been not for any brewing rebellion but instead to fight for King and Country in the Great War – an odd desire for a budding Fenian. Inspiration came from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in order to secure favourable terms for Home Rule, though O’Connor did not intend to go quite as far as joining the British Army, preferring instead a different military that was on the same side. He told Dillon:

…that he was responding to Redmond’s call and that a Colonel…had promised to get him a comission [sic] in the Engineering Corp of the Canadian army. I told him to take his time and explained the situation to him. I brought him out to Larkfield and he soon gave up on the idea of joining the British forces.[5]

O’Connor and Dillon had known each before as school chums at Clongowes Wood. They met again when Dillon came to study in Dublin in 1905, and O’Connor, recognising a kindred spirit, introduced him to the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a grassroots movement for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).[6]

Both joined the committee, as did Patrick J. Little, a future government minister, who accredited O’Connor with being one of the driving forces in a “remarkably clever and interesting” body of young men, consisting mostly of students and professionals, who wanted a voice in how their country should be run.

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Joe Devlin

Young Ireland proved a touch too radical for the IPP grandees, one of whom, Joe Devlin, tried to persuade them, sometime in 1905 or 1906, to take a less strident approach. He failed, but the divergent opinions on board the committee proved too fractious and the group broke up in 1915, while O’Connor was still working in Canada.

Shortly after his homecoming, and diverted from his original idea of enlisting, O’Connor went into business with Dillon, setting up together the Larkfield Chemical Company, the intent being to produce aspirins. From the outset, they ran into difficulties with the authorities, against which they hired their old Young Ireland colleague, Little, as a solicitor. As Little described:

We floated the company, in spite of a refusal to allow us to do so, under a regulation of D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act). On the legal advice of my brother, Edward, I found that D.O.R.A. did not prevail over an Act of Parliament and proceeded to float our company.

Complications continued when machinery purchased from Glasgow arrived defective. The offending suppliers were taken to court and the suit settled for £2,000.[7]

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Tommy Dillon (centre), with Rory O’Connor (right) and an unidentified third man (left)

In any case, O’Connor and Dillon, with the assistance of the Plunketts, on whose property in Larkfield they worked, had become more interested in fermenting rebellion than curing headaches, having learnt of the IRB plans for an armed uprising. At one war council, O’Connor said to those present: “Do you realise what this effort is going to cost in blood? But, if you decide on fighting, I am with you.”

At least, that is what he later told Nugent. It is unlikely, however, he would have been inducted into such a conspiracy if the others were not already certain of his commitment. Previous rebellions had been thwarted in no small part by their carelessness with information. This time, the Military Council would hide its secrets well – perhaps a little too much so.[8]

The Castle Document

Among O’Connor’s responsibilities was the printing of the ‘Castle Document’ with the assistance of George Plunkett. The Military Council, including its de facto leader Tom Clarke, had met previously at Larkfield, in the bedroom of the sickly Joseph, to discuss the document, purportedly smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a sympathetic clerk, which detailed the authorities’ plans to move against the Irish Volunteers as well as a number of other suspect bodies in Ireland.

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Colm Ó Lochlainn

Its credibility would be a matter of controversy. Geraldine was sure it was genuine, but Colm Ó Lochlainn, its original printer before O’Connor and George took over, assumed it a forgery on account of it being in Joseph’s handwriting. Regardless of authenticity, printing the piece proved boring work. O’Connor and George sung together to get through the tedium, even resorting to God Save the King as well as the more expected fare such as The Croppy Boy and I Tread the Ground That Felons Tread. When halfway done, one of them knocked the ink over with an elbow and the work had to be started all over again.

More problems arose. When the finished product was sent out to the newspapers, none would accept it as real. Instead, O’Connor brought a copy to the New Ireland, a weekly newspaper with modest circulation, whose proprietor and editor was none other than Little. After acquiring it in February 1916, Little had assured O’Connor that he would publish anything if it served the cause of Ireland. He was as good as his word, though it was only when the ‘Castle Document’ was read out at the Dublin Corporation meeting on the 19th April 1916 that it finally achieved some proper publicity.

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The Castle Document

The intent behind it had been two-fold, as Geraldine explained:  “Make the Castle hesitate to do the things they were accused of planning, and make the public realise what was planned whether there was a Rising or not.”[9]

Last Minute Plans

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Eoin MacNeill

‘Whether or not’ would become a pressing issue when, after months of preparation, the Irish Volunteers were confronted by the one thing the conspirators had failed to account for: dissension in their own ranks. Suspicious of the activities of the IRB, to which he was not affiliated, Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff, had abruptly countermanded the parade for Easter Sunday that was to provide cover for the Rising, effectively putting the insurrection on hold.

If the IRB had assumed MacNeill would be a compliant figurehead, then they gravely misjudged him. Faced with this unexpected setback, Geraldine assumed that the event would be postponed for a week, possibly longer, until the swirl of rumours obscuring everything had been cleared. She had her own investment in it – she and Dillon were due to be married on Easter Sunday in a double wedding with Joseph and his own fiancé, Grace Gifford.

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Joseph Plunkett

Geraldine and Dillon visited Joseph on Saturday in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, where he had checked in the day before, his luggage carried by Michael Collins as his aide-de-camp. Using his suite as a temporary base of operations, Joseph met with a succession of people until he could spare an hour for his sister and brother-in-law-to-be.

Joseph’s instructions to Dillon were to go to the Imperial Hotel on the same street and wait for news. In the event of activity, Dillon was to take over the chemical factory in Larkfield and set to work alongside O’Connor in making munitions. That is, if anything happened – Joseph was as unsure on that point as anyone since MacNeill’s intervention had thrown everything and everyone into disarray.[10]

Joseph had no time to get married, but Geraldine and Dillon still could. With the Rising due either Sunday or Monday, at least as far as Geraldine understood, she insisted the ceremony be on the earlier date – with the world about to be upturned, she knew she had to carpe diem. Besides, she had had enough of living with her harridan of a mother and grasped at any chance to escape the suffocating confines of her family life.

The wedding was held accordingly in Rathmines Church, attended by George and Jack, both in the green uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with O’Connor, in civilian clothes, acting as best man. His duties included the ejection, helped by the Plunkett brothers, of two police detectives who tried to intrude.

Afterwards, the newly-weds cycled to the Imperial Hotel as per instruction. O’Connor came with the news that MacNeill’s countermand had been published in the Sunday Independent, making it definite. As far as O’Connor could say, the Rising was definitely off for the rest of Sunday but Monday remained an open question. Still, the new Mr and Mrs Dillon should remain on the alert, at least from noon the next day.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sackville Street, Dublin

If anything was to happen, O’Connor told them, it would be then.

Easter Monday

The couple were seated by their open second-storey window, looking out on to Sackville Street when the big question was finally answered by the column of uniformed Irish Volunteers marching towards the General Post Office (GPO), where they halted. As the Imperial Hotel stood directly opposite the GPO, the couple had a front-row view of the men wheeling left and continuing into the post office. Geraldine caught sight of Joseph, with Collins beside him, and a number of the other leaders, such as Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada.

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General Post Office, Dublin

There was a bang and Geraldine saw someone being carried away on a stretcher. When O’Connor came by their room shortly afterwards, he explained that one of the Irish Volunteers had slipped when entering the GPO, setting off the bomb in his hand.

Other than that, the long-gestating Rising was unfolding smoothly enough. With the GPO established as their headquarters, Volunteers began bringing in supplies and smashing windows with rifle-butts to make room for barricades. Geraldine asked O’Connor to tell Joseph to let her help, but when he returned to the Hotel at 6 pm, the answer he brought back was ‘no’. The GPO was too crowded, O’Connor explained.

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Geraldine Plunkett

Instead, Joseph’s instructions were for her and Dillon to return to Larkfield with O’Connor and, if possible, manufacture some more explosives (Geraldine had already beheld the prowess of a Larkfield-made bomb when one was used to mangle an empty tramcar on Sackville Street for use in a barricade). To avoid British patrols on the way, it was agreed for O’Connor to take a different route to Geraldine and Dillon. He would try to reach his father’s residence in Monkstown, while the other two headed to Rathmines where the Plunketts owned another house, and the next day they would reconvene in Larkfield.

Night was falling and the street lights flickered on to guide the newly-weds as they cycled over O’Connell Bridge, encountering almost no one else along the way. The streets were devoid of people, whether civilians or military, and Geraldine could take satisfaction at least that the Rising, after all the effort and trouble to bring about, had taken everyone, the authorities especially, completely by surprise.

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Tommy Dillon

At Larkfield, the trio reunited as planned on Tuesday morning. O’Connor had first checked in at the GPO, and assured Geraldine and Dillon that Joseph was well. As the assigned chemical expert on the Plunkett staff, Dillon began making production plans as per Joseph’s orders, but O’Connor stopped him, saying that the situation had moved past that.

The Rising, it seemed, was not going as smoothly as hoped.

When Dillon wondered if it would be any use going to the GPO, O’Connor again demurred, repeating Joseph’s line that the building was packed enough as it was. For want of anything else to do, O’Connor decided he would take messages in and out of the GPO and other parts of the city, a risky endeavour considering the fighting that was about to be waged. It was while doing this that O’Connor, after narrowly avoiding a bullet to the head, met Cullen, who took him to Nugent’s shop in Baggot Street.[11]

Something to Do

There, O’Connor did not mince words. “He told us the whole position and it was hopeless,” Nugent remembered.

As O’Connor explained, much of their ammunition had already been spent and the remainder would not last for more than a few days. Joseph Plunkett was confident that their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ would come to their rescue, having been to Germany beforehand and heard the promises of a military landing, but no one else in the GPO was putting much stock in this possibility.

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Sir James Gallagher

O’Connor begged the two National Volunteers to do everything in their power to effect a ceasefire of some kind. The duo were as good as their word, as they gathered a small delegation of fellow officers to call on the Lord Mayor, Sir James Gallagher, on the Wednesday. With Cullen and Nugent were Major James Crean, the head of the National Volunteers, the Hon. Fitzroy Hemphill and Creed Meredith. None of these three were aware of Cullen and Nugent’s contacts with O’Connor or the Irish Volunteers.

Unfortunately, Gallagher proved less than helpful:

Our reception was anything but dignified. Both the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave us terrible abuse. Both expressed the hope that not a rebel would escape.

One by one we tried to reason with him that it was for the purpose of stopping the fight that we wished to intervene. He had been to the Castle and had consulted with the Army Authorities already.

After a long debate he said he would mention the matter. But he would not recommend any cessation of hostilities until the rebels were wiped out.

With this not-very-encouraging promise obtained from the Lord Mayor, for what it was worth, Nugent and Cullen left the other three to next try John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow and, more importantly, the Secretary of the National Volunteers. Through him, the pair hoped to induce John Redmond to exert his influence in Westminster for a truce. They were no more successful here:

Donovan was also very hostile and said that a telegram had been sent to him by Mr Redmond ordering him to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Military. The telegram had not been delivered and that was why he did not act. He could not act on a ‘phone message. We were sorry for this as we would have answered the call and used the arms and ammunition on our own way.

With little to show for their efforts, Cullen and Nugent returned to O’Connor, who had been mulling over options after talking with Pearse in the GPO. He asked the pair to contact the Dublin Fusiliers, one of the British regiments tasked with putting down the Rising, and offer £2 a man to defect, as per Pearse’s instructions.

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Royal Dublin Fusiliers

Neither Cullen nor Nugent bothered asking O’Connor if he even had that sort of money – as the Fusiliers were based in Kilmainham, which was firmly in enemy hands, they had no chance of reaching them anyway. When Cullen offered the services of whatever National Volunteers he could muster, O’Connor declined.

“Send them home. We have no arms for them now,” he said, adding a trifle optimistically: “We will want them again.”[12]

The End and the Start

O’Connor spent the rest of that fateful week passing messages in and out of the GPO – when he could. He was able to pass through British cordons by showing a letter to his father, a solicitor to the Land Commission, from Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, but even this proof of official connections had its limits, such as on the Thursday, when he found himself under fire while en route to the GPO and was forced to turn back.

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Irish rebels (of the ICA?) take aim on a rooftop

The nonstop rattle of machine-guns had by then permeated the city, intercut by the boom of artillery. On Saturday, news filtered out that the rebel leaders had surrendered, cutting short the fight for Irish freedom. Those Volunteers who had not managed to slip away were held overnight on the wet grass of the Rotunda Gardens under searchlights and the curses of their British captors.

Still at large, O’Connor made further use of his father, getting him to write a letter to Dublin Castle, begging for intervention for George and Jack. Even if there was little chance of Joseph being spared execution, there might be hope for his brothers. He was on his way to deliver the letter when a bullet from a sniper, still holding out in the Royal College of Surgeons, ricocheted off a metal box on the corner of Grafton Street. O’Connor had had a close call before, but this time he was not so lucky, being hit in the leg.

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Left to right: George Plunkett, Rory O’Connor and Jack Plunkett

So stricken, O’Connor was admitted to Mercer’s Hospital under an assumed name. Nonetheless, some of the nurses guessed he was one of the rebels on account of the holy medal in his pocket, a gift from Fiona Plunkett, Joseph’s sister, with whom he had an off-and-on relationship. Concerned that the nurses – who made plain their views on the Rising by telling O’Connor that he ought to be shot – would give away the identity of his patient, the doctor had him moved to a nursing home in Leeson Street.

He stayed there for three weeks until his brother Norbett found him. Another visitor while he was recuperating was Cullen, to whom O’Connor had sent word through one of the friendlier nurses. There was much for them to talk about, after all.[13]

As Nugent put it:

For Rory O’Connor, Capt. T.J. Cullen, myself and the men who had already started organising again, the war was still on. Rory mentioned that it did not stop at any time, and while he and those who were prepared to work with him did so it would continue to carry on in various ways.[14]

“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote Y.B. Yeats on the Rising but, for O’Connor, it was merely business as usual.

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Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in ruins after the Rising

Transience

O’Connor had never been particularly important before the Rising, instead serving as an aide to those who were, such as Joseph Plunkett. But now, as one of the few leaders of the Irish Volunteers alive and at liberty, he was ideally placed to help shape events. For, though the Rising had been a military disaster, its aftermath provided a crop of opportunities to be harvested.

249_1Patrick Little was one of his allies in this venture. If before Little had been dipping his toe in radical politics, now he threw himself in wholeheartedly, having had his offices in Eustace Street, where he did his work as a solicitor, trashed by British soldiers during Easter Week. When a rifle was found on the premises, the soldiers dragged out the son of the caretaker into the narrow lane at the back of the building, where they shot him.

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H.H. Asquith

The boy had been with the Irish Volunteers but, confused by the contradictory orders over mobilisation, he had decided to stay at home with his family. When H. H. Asquith visited Dublin three weeks after the Rising, Little made sure to avoid contact as the Prime Minister passed by Eustace Street.[15]

As editor of New Ireland, Little had a platform to use, and in O’Connor he had a teacher in the new way of thinking. The two would lunch together in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, and Little attributed much of the content of his writings from that time to these conversations. Not only Little but the country as a whole was revaluating its stance on the National Question. When the pair travelled together to South Longford for the by-election in May 1917, even they were taken aback by the fervour of the crowds who responded at the sight of a tricolour with hearty cheers of “Up the Republic!”

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The former site of Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, Dublin

“This was a time when public opinion was very confused and in a very transient condition,” Little remembered. “Many Unionists were prepared to accept Home Rule, and moderate national opinion, which represented the majority of people – and included the former supporters of Redmond – were becoming strongly Republican.”[16]

Sinn Féin Rising

Among the beneficiaries of this shifting mood was Arthur Griffith. The ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the British state had called the Rising but, in truth, Griffith and his talking-shop of a group had had naught to do with it. Which did not stop Sinn Féin from basking in the appropriated glow of Easter Week when the public mood turned in its favour. Nor was Griffith in any particular hurry to correct the misnaming. Nationalist Ireland had been dominated for years by the IPP but now, as trust in Redmond and his Home Rule agenda plummeted, Sinn Féin was poised to step in with a promise of its own.

0209“As Ireland became pro-insurrection she became Sinn Féin, without knowing what Sinn Féin was,” was how one contemporary described the phenomenon, “except that it stood generally for Irish independence in the old complete way, the way in which the Irish Party had not stood for it.”[17]

Opportunity presented itself in North Roscommon at the start of the new year, when the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) died in January 1917, and Count George Plunkett was the Sinn Féin selection for the resulting by-election. If the Rising had been a family affair for the Plunketts, then so was the subsequent political movement, as the Count was the father of Joseph Plunkett, and O’Connor, serving as the candidate’s unofficial aide, was his son-in-law in a way, given his romantic involvement with Fiona Plunkett.

When Nugent arrived in Roscommon, he found the contested consistency gripped in the chill of winter, and a threadbare campaign. The local Sinn Féin circles had not even been aware he was coming, so poor was the communication between them and Dublin. Nugent had been sent by O’Connor to help with the canvassing, but the only thing O’Connor had given him was advice, and that amounted to no more than ‘do what you think is right’.

Neither he nor Nugent had any experience in electioneering, or in public speaking in the case of the latter, but the handful of Sinn Féin activists who greeted him at Dromod Station, Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon, insisted he speak after Mass the next morning, the opening day of the campaign. Despite his doubts, as he stood in one foot of snow on the platform, Nugent did not feel he could refuse.

Nugent was set to speak at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, after Thomas Smyth, the Irish Party MP for Leitrim South. The two foes were driven to the church by the local priest, Father Lavin, who was keen to stay on friendly terms with both sides. After being introduced by Lavin in the church, Smyth delivered his pience, only to be received in stony silence by the congregation. Nugent then rose without waiting for an invitation and mounted the steps to the chancel for his turn.

The Election of the Snows

Afterwards, Nugent would not be able to remember what he said, only that, according to others who were present, they were “very strong things”. When Smyth tried to interrupt, he was quickly shushed. Nugent could read the writing on the wall: “As far as the election in this district was concerned, the Count had won there that first Sunday morning of the campaign.”

vote-e1487072014711-300x254Things went even worse for Smyth later that day. He was so angry that he refused to let Nugent come with him and Father Lavan in the car to Slatta Chapel, where the two representatives were due to appear next.

“Smith [sic] could have saved himself the journey,” Nugent gloated, as the MP’s vehicle became stuck in the snow, forcing him and the priest to walk to Slatta Chapel, which Nugent had already reached by horse and trap. “My meeting was over before he arrived and it was most enthusiastic.”

Rubbing salt further into the wound, when Smyth finally had the chance to address the crowd, he was barred from doing so.[18]

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Margaret Pearse

The times, they were a-changing, a point underlined when the votes from polling day were counted in the Roscommon Courthouse. Nugent drove back to Dublin, reaching his house in Dundrum to find it full of Sinn Féin supporters, including Margaret and Margaret Mary Pearse, the mother and sister respectively of the 1916 martyr. Though Margaret Pearse said she would be content with a win by as much as a single vote, even she found Nugent’s announcement of a landslide victory by Count Plunkett hard to take in.

When news of the result and its scale was published in the evening papers, the country understood that a great statement had been made – what that message was, however, would take some deciphering.[19]

Different Ideas

“When people say that this was not a Republican election, they say wrong,” Nugent would later write. “The principles of the men of Easter Week were shouted from every platform. From the crowds attending these meetings came the cries of ‘Up Dublin’.”[20]

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Count Plunkett

That he felt the need to clarify the issue was a sign in itself. It was not even clear if Count Plunkett intended to take his newly-won seat at Westminster, as some wanted, or if he would abstain on Republican principles, as per his declaration. And so O’Connor, acting as Plunkett’s unofficial director of operations, dispatched Nugent back to Roscommon to gauge local opinion on the question.

He returned with the answer that the electorate was not only fully in agreement with its MP but would return him with an even greater majority in the event of another election. When the Count confirmed that he would indeed not be taking his seat, there was, according to Nugent, “consternation in the ranks of Sinn Féin.”[21]

It was clear that, despite their points of ideological overlap, there was at least as many differences between Sinn Féin and the burgeoning Republican movement, embodied in the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and behind-the-scenes operatives like O’Connor. “Rory O’Connor and the people working with him had different ideas from the Sinn Féin party,” was how Nugent put it.[22]

‘Politicians’, a term loaded with contempt in the mouths of Nugent and other Republicans, included their Sinn Féin partners as much as the Redmondite old guard:

The politicians were different from the Volunteers. They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines. They were preparing to go back to their old political policy of action. Passive resistance was their programme.[23]

When Count Plunkett announced at a rally in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, that the Irish Volunteers would be reformed and organised, this was exactly in line with O’Connor’s agenda, which most certainly did not include ‘passive resistance’. For there was a new battle to be waged, one not limited to Dublin and a few other scattered districts as Easter Week had been.

It would be nationwide.

It would be a Rising worthy of the name.

O’Connor’s statement on Easter Tuesday – “Send them home. We shall want them again” – now took on a different, more prophetic, meaning.

“But the politicians were troublesome,” Nugent noted with a sigh. “They did not countenance another fight.”[24]

Which Ticket?

However annoying politicians might be, politics was not something that could be ignored. O’Connor had by then appointed himself secretary to Count Plunkett who, having scored his major win in North Roscommon, did not seem inclined to do anything with it. O’Connor would have to enter the Plunkett family residence in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street early enough to find all the mail dealing with the new movement before the absent-minded Count could put the letters in his pocket and forget about them.[25]

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin

As Ireland reassessed where it stood on the National Question, Sinn Féin was undergoing some restructuring of its own. After the North Roscommon by-election, Griffith increased the Executive with a few extra faces but, otherwise, “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive members. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.”

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Arthur Griffith

Lennon was uncomfortably aware that Count Plunkett and his Republican-minded followers were forming a party of their own, one with which “it was difficult to work in harmony. Many of these then Republicans treated Mr Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion.” Griffith may have had name recognition, being “probably the best-known man out of gaol,” but what his opponents lacked in numbers, they made up for in pushiness.

A meeting held in the Mansion House, dubbed the ‘Plunkett Convention’, on the 19th April 1917, was meant to unite the radicals of Ireland. Instead, it resulted in an undignified scramble between Giffith’s and Plunkett’s followers, one which Lennon cringed to remember:

The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.

After the Convention had ended, Griffith withdrew to his offices at 6 Harcourt Street. He was sitting in the front drawing-room with Lennon and a few other confidantes when:

Suddenly the door was thrown open and a man of splendid physique entered, followed by a frail figure. It was Michael Collins, accompanied by Rory O’Connor. This was the first time I ever saw the former. His entrance was characteristic of his manner at that period.

Looking around, rather truculently, his eyes rested on Mr Griffith, and he asked in a loud voice: “I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on.”

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Michael Collins

Griffith appeared rather more interested in the cigarette he was smoking. The by-election in South Longford was the second such contest of the year, one in which Sinn Féin and Plunkett’s faction were eager to replicate the success of North Roscommon – on whose terms, however, had yet to be decided.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket you will alienate all the young men,” Collins thundered to the room. By ‘young men’, he meant the Irish Volunteers. Even if not meant as a threat, it was hard not to take it as one.

‘A Great Silent Worker’

To Lennon, this was the first time he had heard the Republic being pushed as official policy, a sign of how divergent he and the others in Sinn Féin were from Collins, O’Connor and the other ‘young men’. The discussion – or argument, rather – warred on until, tiring of it, Collins and O’Connor withdrew to count the donations from the convention, the question put aside but most certainly not forgotten.[26]

It was noticeable that Collins had been doing the talking while O’Connor remained silent; ‘fragile’, perhaps, but no less of a presence – or influence. “Rory O’Connor was not a politician or a parade man,” so Nugent described him. “He was a great silent worker and, consequently, he was not as well known to the rank and file of the army as were most of the other leaders.”[27]

That the Plunkett Convention had happened at all was due to O’Connor. Dillon believed he had taken on the role of its secretary because no one else was doing it The invitation to the event, issued in the name of Count Plunkett, had been met with many a hostile reception, at least according to the Freeman’s Journal. Which was unsurprising, this being the organ of the IPP, but O’Connor would read almost every daily edition, specifically looking for the names of the one or two members in the various county or district councils who did not condemn the invitation, even when the rest voted to reject it.

freemans20journal20bannerTo each of these dissenters, O’Connor would dispatch a letter, saying:

I see by the paper that you are the only person in ____ who represents the true opinions of the people and therefore send you a card of invitation to the convention.

“In this way,” Dillon described, “a very large attendance at the [Plunkett] Convention from all over the country was secured and tickets left over were given to Dublin supporters, so that when the day came the Round Room was full.”

For his part, Dillon had drawn up the agenda, with a number of resolutions to be passed. He did this at O’Connor’s request since Count Plunkett, after signing his name to the invites, assumed that all he had to do was address the attendees and leave it at that. Without O’Connor intervening with a workable agenda, the event might still have been an embarrassing flop. Instead, the Plunkett Convention was the first large-scale meeting in a movement that would upheave the political status quo.[28]

And yet, despite all his work, O’Connor “never appeared on the scene. He was almost unknown,” according to Nugent, which was apparently the way he liked it. Even with the culmination of Sinn Fein’s political ascent, the Dáil Éireann, Geraldine Dillon knew of her friend’s involvement only as the one who escorted her and Fiona Plunkett to its inauguration, on the 21st January 1919, at the Mansion House.[29]

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The first Dáil session, January 1919

On that same day, two policemen were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in the opening volley of what would become variously known as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish War or the Tan War; throughout which, O’Connor was to remain in the shadows, an obscure figure to the wider public despite the leading role he played.

When a reporter from the Derry Journal met O’Connor in April 1922, finding him to be a “serious, ascetic and somewhat cadaverous-looking man”, it was noted that, despite his involvement in the Republican movement since 1916, no one had heard of him until the recent Treaty split.[30]

To be continued in: Out of the Bastille: Rory O’Connor and the War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Part II)

References

[1] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 15-8, 30-1

[2] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2012), p. 311

[3] Ibid, pp. 195, 199-200

[4] O’Connor, Norbert (BMH / WS 527), p. 2

[5] University College Dublin Archives, Éamon de Valera Papers, P/150/576

[6] Ibid

[7] Little, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 5-6, 8

[8] Nugent, p. 43

[9] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 210-3 ; Little, p. 11

[10] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 214-5

[11] Ibid, pp. 219-22, 224-6

[12] Nugent, pp. 32-3

[13] Ibid, p. 50 ; Plunkett Dillon, pp. 226, 228 ; Little, pp. 14-5

[14] Nugent, p. 51

[15] Little, p. 21

[16] Ibid, pp. 16, 52, 54

[17] O’Hegarty, P.S., The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2015), p. 5

[18] Nugent, pp. 70-1

[19] Ibid, p. 79

[20] Ibid, p. 75

[21] Ibid, p. 80

[22] Ibid, p. 67

[23] Ibid, p. 68

[24] Ibid, pp. 69, 80

[25] P/150/576

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

[27] Nugent, p. 43

[28] P/150/575

[29] Nugnet, p. 92 ; Plunkett Dillon, p. 268

[30] Derry Journal, 17/04/1922

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick J., WS 1769

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Connor, Norbert, WS 527

Books

O’Hegarty, P.S., The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2015)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2012)

Newspaper

Derry Journal

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Éamon de Valera Papers

Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Coming to Galway

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Liam Mellows

In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?

The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”

If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!

Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.

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Irish Volunteers

Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.

“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.[1]

The Plot Thickens

Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:

…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.[2]

Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.

A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.[3]

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Irish Volunteers

Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.

What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.

It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.

It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.[4]

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Liam Mellows at the wheel of a car, with friends, including Harry Boland (centre back)

Optimism and Comradeship

Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.

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Fianna Éireann on the march

At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[5]

The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”

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Robert Brennan

Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.

Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.

It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.

Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.

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The Mellows family house at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

Family Matters

Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.

Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.

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British soldiers in Dublin

“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.

“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”

“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”

“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.

“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.[6]

Na Fianna Éireann

At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”[7]

White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.

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Fianna Éireann Scouts

The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.

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Countess Markievicz

The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).[8]

More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.

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Con Colbert

The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.

From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.[9]

On the Road

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Liam Mellows

In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:

This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.

When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead![10]

In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”[11]

Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.[12]

The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.

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Fianna Éireann  and Irish Volunteers transport weapons from Howth, July 1914

As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.[13]

A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.

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The Mauser Model 1871, of the type transported into Howth and Kilcoole

Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.[14]

Police Watch

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Bulmer Hobson

His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.

Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.[16]

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Tom Clarke

Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.[17]

But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.[18]

A Meeting in Tuam

The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.

“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”

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Market Square, Tuam, Co. Galway

The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.

“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:

…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.

It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.

“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.

“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.

Destroying the Evidence

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Seán Mac Diarmada

Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.

When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.

According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:

The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.

Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.[19]

This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”[20]

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RIC members

In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.[21]

An Athenry Return

Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.

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Athenry, Co. Galway

The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.

When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.

(Whatever, indeed…)

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Irish Volunteers on parade

The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.[22]

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Patrick Pearse

But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.[23]

Preparations

When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.

“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”[24]

On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.

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Clarinbridge, Co, Galway, today

As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.

They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.

“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”[25]

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Irish Volunteers stand to attention, Co. Sligo

Shams

These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:

I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.[26]

Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.

Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.

“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.[27]

volunteer-outfits
Advertisement for uniforms, showing the spread of the Volunteer movement

If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.

Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.

He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.[28]

Nora Connolly

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Nora Connolly

Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want. We have every confidence in you.

Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.[29]

Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.[30]

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James Connolly

Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”[31]

The Search Begins

The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”

All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.

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Helena Molony

At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.

As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.

Glasgow

When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.

Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.

They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.

zeppelin
Zeppeln

The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:

He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.

The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.

Flight

After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:

We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.

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Barney Mellows

There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.[32]

Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.

McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.

tgsa00657When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.[33]

With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.

The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.[34]

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Denis McCullough

Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.

As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.[35]

To be continued in: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

References

[1] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 6-7

[2] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 7

[3] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 12-3

[4] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), pp. 4-5

[5] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 2

[8] Ibid, pp. 5-6

[9] Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5

[10] O’Neill, Seán (BMH / WS 1219), pp. 12, 18

[11] Martin, p. 6 ; White, p. 8

[12] White, p. 9

[13] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1670), pp. 12-4

[14] O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 139 ; Holohan, Garry (BMH / WS 328), p. 44 ; MacCarthy, Thomas (BMH / WS 307), p. 9

[15] Hobson, Bulmer (BMH / WS 87) pp. 3-4

[16] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,654(3)

[17] Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 238

[18] Hynes, pp. 7,10

[19] Connacht Tribune, 22/05/1915 ; Costello, John D. (BMH / WS 1330), pp. 4-5

[20] White, p. 10

[21] Ibid

[22] Connacht Tribune, 17/07/1915, 20/11/1915

[23] Monahan, p. 13 ; Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 7

[24] Kearns, Daniel (BMH / WS 1124), p. 3

[25] Ibid, pp. 7-8

[26] Connacht Tribune, 18/03/1916

[27] Ibid, 25/03/1916

[28] Broderick, John (BMH / WS 344), p. 3 ; Irish Times, 26, 28/03/1916

[29] Connolly O’Brien, Nora (BMH / WS 286), pp. 9-10

[30] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[31] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919), pp. 76, 89-90

[32] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 10-14

[33] McCormack, Patrick (BMH / WS 339), pp. 8-9

[34] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 14-15

[35] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 199

Bibliography

Books

Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968)

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

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broderick, John, WS 344

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Connolly O’Brien, Nora, WS 286

Costello, John D., WS 1330

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Hobson, Bulmer, WS 87

Holohan, Garry, WS 328

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kavangh, Seamus, WS 1670

Kearns, Daniel, WS 1124

MacCarthy, Thomas, WS 307

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

McCormack, Patrick, WS 339

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

White, Alfred, WS 1207

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

National Library of Ireland

MS 31,654(3)