Ouroboros Eating Its Tail: The Irish Party against Sinn Féin in a New Ireland, 1917

Memories of Mountjoy

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‘The prisoner’

Seán Milroy, governor of Mountoy Prison, was surprised at the sight of the latest inmate – a stout, elderly man – brought before him in his office. “Something very bad was wrong with him evidently,” Milroy noted. “He was extremely restless, moving his arms about in a jerky, spasmodic fashion, and rolling his eyes in an awful way.”

The prisoner’s name, when Milroy asked the warden in attendance, was John Redmond, who had been proving to be a bother, pacing up and down his cell while shouting slogans like: “Poor little Belgium! Charters of liberty! The Allies! The Empire. The Huns!”

As if to demonstrate, Redmond grew even more agitated in front of Milroy, yelling out: “Disgruntled cranks! Factionists! German gold!” and words to that effect.

This behaviour worsened as the warden tried calming him, and Milroy rang the bell on his desk for assistance. It was then that the ‘governor’ woke up from his daydream, his role-reversing fantasy of himself in the position of authority, with his political opponents humbled before him, and not, as he really was, a prisoner in Mountjoy.[1]

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Seán Milroy

At least Milroy – a “well-known Sinn Feiner”, according to a contemporary newspaper report – could take solace in that he was nearing the end of his three-month sentence, from June to September 1915, for “having used language likely to discourage recruiting for His Majesty’s Army” in a public speech. He did not record his time behind bars, spent in the company of like-minded prisoners such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows, until two years later, in 1917, by which time the country was in a very different state, indeed.[2]

Nationalist Ireland had turned on itself, like Ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, one end consuming the other. It was now no longer necessary to imagine the degradation of Redmond, on whose shoulders the hopes of Irish self-rule had once rested. The mere sight of him as he left Trinity College, Dublin, in mid-1917, incited boos from the small crowd outside the front gate.

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Ouroboros

The jeers grew louder, as the hecklers followed Redmond up Westmoreland Street, prompting some civic-minded passers-by to form a protective ring around the beleaguered politician. Even so, it was only after he hurried inside the first building to hand for refuge that the danger could be said to have passed.

“I am quite sure that if any of the mob had offered physical violence to Redmond,” remembered one witness, “I would have joined in.” To sixteen-year-old Todd Andrews and many others in Sinn Féin, Redmond was “the epitome of politicians in general, and all politicians were regarded as low, dirty and treacherous.”[3]

Divine Law

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T.P. O’Connor

It was not for want of trying on Redmond’s part. On the 7th March 1917, he and rest of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tried to break the impasse over Home Rule, its long-cherished project, when T.P. O’Connor, as Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Scotland, introduced a motion in the House of Commons, calling on that august assembly “without further delay to confer upon Ireland the free institutions long promised.”[4]

David Lloyd George declined. Or rather, the Prime Minister declared that Home Rule was there for the parts of Ireland which wanted it. But, in regards to the remainder, those who were Irishmen in name while being, as he put it, “as alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen” – no, Home Rule was not something he would force on them.

These ‘alien’ exceptions were the Unionists, who had shifted from opposing Home Rule in its entirety to demanding that various counties be given the option of remaining outside the jurisdiction of any new Dublin parliament, answerable only to the one at Westminster, just as before. As these Unionists were concentrated largely in Ulster, such allowances would amount in practice to the exclusion of those six counties in the north-east corner of the island.

Perfect from the Ulster Unionists’ point of view but political suicide for Redmond should this Partition happen on his watch. Unfortunately for the Irish Party, such passions were beyond the ability of Englishmen to relate to.

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Ulster Unionist postcard

“We often cut up counties in England without engaging in civil war,” Harold Spender, a pro-Home Rule journalist, wrote to Redmond on the 29th March 1917. “There is no divine law against moving a county landmark.”[5]

Divine law or not, that even a sympathetic individual like Spender could be so obtuse did not bode well for the IPP’s chances of rallying enough support to halt Partition. Yet all its MPs could do was try their best.

(Not) Answering the Irish Question

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David Lloyd George

When T.P. O’Connor dined with Lloyd George on the 22nd January 1917, his lobbying made little headway. To O’Connor’s dismay, the Prime Minister appeared to have spared Home Rule little thought beforehand, being content with Partition as the only credible solution. He was more interested in the possibility of conscription for Ireland in order to solve the need for manpower on the Western Front, a policy which O’Connor was keen to stress as a debacle in the making.

While Lloyd George continuously reassured O’Connor, over the course of their meal together, of his desire to remain on tight terms with his Irish allies, his actions were to fall short of his words, especially if they risked offending the Ulster Unionist presence in Parliament.[6]

Not that Redmond could afford to give up. “I hope you will read this as it is from a friend,” wrote his brother, William, to the Prime Minister, on the 4th March 1917, three days before their showdown in Westminster. The MP for East Clare began with an attempt to rekindle warm memories: “When you entered the House I was then an old member. We fought many battles on the same side.”

As the letter went on, a slight edge of pleading crept in:

I do not want anything from you but this – to settle the Irish question – you are strong enough. Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain.

William Redmond ended with a stark warning: “If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.”[7]

“There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” Lloyd George wrote back two days later, on the 6th March. After all, as he pointed out: “I was elected to the House purely as a Home Rule candidate…and I have voted steadily for Home Rule ever since.”

154Which was true enough. But he clearly did not feel the same urgency as William Redmond, nor thought the matter as simple to solve as the other man seemed to: “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question, and if any man can show me a way out of that I should indeed be happy.”[8]

In other words: my hands are tied, so too bad.

Miracles and the Lack of

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William Redmond

Appropriately enough, after his efforts in private had been exhausted, it was William Redmond who publicly made the case before Parliament for immediate and unconditional Home Rule. He looked every bit his fifty-five years, much of which had been spent in the service of his country.

“Major Redmond’s hair is white now, and he has lost much of his boyish air,” wrote one observer. “The war has deeply lined his face, and his eyes are more deeply set than in his political swashbuckling days.”[9]

Dressed in khaki, as befitting his rank of major in the British Army, he had stood to second T.P. O’Connor’s motion on the 7th March. To Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, “that debate will always be remembered by those who heard it for one speech” and that was William Redmond’s.[10]

At a length of half an hour, his piece was a relatively short one by the standards of the chamber. In place of the quantity of words, however, William Redmond made up for in quality. Dark and bitter mistakes had been made in the past, and not all on one side, he conceded, but there was no point in brooding on the past.

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Edward Carson

Instead, he appealed directly to Edward Carson to meet with his Nationalist opposites – for the sake of the future and for the Irishmen who were, even now, fighting and dying together in the same trenches – so they could come to some arrangement on the basis of self-government for their shared island.

If safeguards were what the Ulster Unionists wanted, then Redmond promised to go to any lengths necessary to reassure them, even if that included – he suggested tantalisingly – the acceptance of a Prime Minister from Ulster to head the first Irish Government.[11]

While there were other speeches that day, William Redmond’s was the one that counted as far as many were concerned. O’Connor could hear the heavy breathing of his fellow MPs seated around him, while others who watched from the gallery – so he was told afterwards – were so overcome with emotion that they wept and sobbed unabashedly.[12]

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Stephen Gwynn

Gwynn was similarly awed. “It was a speech, in short, that made one believe in impossibilities,” as he put it, “but in Parliament no miracles happen.”[13]

When it was clear to the chamber that Lloyd George was no closer than before in supporting an all-Ireland settlement, with Ulster included, John Redmond rose to deliver the piece de resistance of the day. The Prime Minister, he declared, had brought Ireland face to face with revolution. From now on, the country would have to be governed with an unsheathed sword and, as such, it was pointless to continue the debate.

And, with that, reported the Irish Times:

The Nationalists cheered to the echo as their leader left his seat and stalked majestically down the gangway, and along the floor of the House. They followed him, shouting and jeering as they went, while members looked on with serious faces.[14]

If nothing else, the Irish Party still knew how to make an exit. Not that it made any real difference.

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Joe Devlin

When O’Connor and Joe Devlin, the MP for West Belfast, met Lloyd George later in the month, on the 28th March, time had done nothing to change the Prime Minister’s mind. “LG says that the Orangemen still insist on the 6 counties and was hopeless of getting them to move from that position,” O’Connor reported to John Redmond. “We told him he ought to deny them; he says he could not.”[15]

Despite the uphill struggle they faced, O’Connor still kept the faith. “If [Lloyd George] persists in his whole 6-county proposal,” he told Redmond on the 1st April 1917, “he will fail ignominiously for we can tear such a proposal to tatters in the House of Commons.”[16]

Perhaps, but Ireland was no longer waiting to give its representatives that chance.

‘A More Reasonable Outlook’

William Redmond’s celebrated performance in Parliament turned out to be his swansong. “We deeply regret to learn that Major William H.K. Redmond, MP, of the Royal Irish Regiment,” reported the Irish Times on the 11th June 1917, three months later, “was killed in action on the 7th inst. in the brilliant and successful attack on the Ridge of Messines.”[17]

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Aftermath of the Battle of Messines

The uniform William Redmond had worn while in the House of Commons had been no pose. Nor was his plea for reconciliation between Nationalist and Unionist Ireland anything less than sincere. That Irish soldiers from the two traditions could fight together in the same trenches was proof enough, to him, that a better, happier future was possible together.

True, differences remained – William Redmond was not so naïve as to think otherwise. “The soldier in France who was a home ruler at home probably remains so,” he admitted, writing publicly in May 1917. “The Ulster soldier who disapproved of home rule probably does so still”:

But the meeting of men of diverse opinions in the field has undoubtedly created an atmosphere of friendliness which must make it easier to adjust differences and which should induce a more reasonable outlook upon things at home.[18]

When William Redmond returned to his regiment in France, in time for the push towards a German strongpoint near Messines, his main fear was that he would be held back from the Front on account of his age.

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British soldiers in the trenches

“He felt absolutely miserable at the prospect of being kept behind,” remembered an army chaplain for the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “He had used every influence with General [William Bernard] Hickie to get over the top with the men”:

He spoke in the most feeling manner of what awaited the poor fellows, and longed to share their sufferings and their fate.

In that regard, he was to have his wish. When permission was given for him to join the firing-line, he informed a fellow Irish officer “with real delight and boyishness in his voice”, to the other man’s wonder: “I have never seen anyone so pleased as he was.”[19]

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William Redmond’s grave in Locre, Belgium

‘Tired Out’

For his older brother, it was a particularly wounding blow. “The loss of him meant to John Redmond a loss of personal efficiency,” wrote Gwynn. “Sorrow gave a strong grip to depression on a brooding mind which had always a proneness to melancholy.” For William had been more than a sibling to John, but a counsellor too, and perhaps the sole one:

He had who temperamentally shared his own point of view. Willie Redmond was the only man who could break through his brother’s constitutional reserve and could force him into discussion. In the months that were to come such a man was badly needed.[20]

John Redmond’s melancholia-prone mind had already been brooding for quite some time. “Redmond is very depressed,” wrote T.P. O’Connor to John Dillon, on the 18th May 1916. “He seems to be tired out and sick of the whole position and has again and again referred to the possibility of his retiring from politics.”[21]

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William Redmond (left), John Redmond (right) and the latter’s son, William (right)

Dillon, for his part, did not bother so much with sympathy. “It is touch and go whether we can save the movement and keep the Party in existence,” the MP for East Mayo admitted to O’Connor on the 19th August 1916. “A great deal depends on the extent to which the Chairman realises the position and on what his intentions as to the future are.” That “on these points I am to a large extent in the dark” did not bode well for saving their life’s work.[22]

A month later, on the 26th September 1916, Dillon was even more frank to O’Connor: “Enthusiasm and trust in Redmond and the Party is dead [underlined in original text] so far as the mass of the people is concerned.”

A speech Redmond made in Waterford, in October 1916, promising a tougher line in the future, gave the Constitutional cause fresh drive, as even the habitually glum Dillon agreed. To him, the speech was “all that could be desired, and it will do an incalculable amount of good. It has already had an immense effect on the country.”

There would no further negotiations with the British Government, Redmond had declared, only a demand for the release of those interned since the Easter Rising, a call for General Maxwell – his work long done in suppressing sedition – to be withdrawn from the country, and a firm resistance to any possibility of conscription in Ireland.

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John Redmond delivering a speech

After months of political deadlock, with their elected representatives appearing no more than hostages to fate, this bold new stance, in Dillon’s opinion, “took the country by surprise, and produced a great wave of reaction in favour of his leadership and of the Party. If that attitude is resolutely adhered to the country will come all right.”[23]

Dead Cat Bounce

If, if, if…

The great wave of reaction had receded by the start of 1917, leaving the Party as stranded as a beached whale. A by-election drubbing in North Roscommon in February – the first of the wins to Sinn Féin that year – was enough to plunge Redmond into a crisis of faith.

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Cartoon upon the IPP defeat in North Roscommon, from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

In a letter intended for the Party followers, Redmond acknowledged the fork on the road to which they had come. If North Roscommon was an abnormality, “a freak election, due to…momentary passion” over how the winner, Count Plunkett, had had a son executed after the Rising, then that was all well and good. But, on the other hand, should the result represent “a change of principle of policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people,” then the entire future of the Constitutional cause, the raison d’être of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had just been questioned…and found wanting.

If so, then Redmond was prepared to give way graciously: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men if they so choose.”[24]

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Another mocking cartoon from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

Thankfully for his colleagues, whose careers were hanging in the balance, Redmond was persuaded against publishing the letter. But not even a close confidant like William Redmond was immune to defeatism, as he privately urged his brother that they and all their MPs step down to make room for younger men.

Having recovered from his earlier bout of weakness, John Redmond held firm but, shortly afterwards, there was the second by-election rout of the year, this time for South Longford in May 1917. It had been a hard-fought contest, and a razor-thin difference in votes at the end, but a loss was a loss, and one sorely felt.

It was, in Gwynn’s view, “a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party” on the part of the Irish people. This was not merely hindsight speaking, for shortly after South Longford, a second suggestion was made that the Party MPs resign their seats en masse and allow the country to decide on the choice before it: the constitutional way or…the other way.

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Cartoon depiction of John Redmond, ‘Roscommon Herald’, 21st May 1917

Again, Redmond was adamantly against such a step down, as Gwynn described: “He said that it would be a lack of courage: that one or two defeats should not turn us from our course.”[25]

That is, if their course could still be taken. No outlet had argued harder for the IPP candidate than the Longford Leader. In the wake of bitter rejection, however, the newspaper could predict only one end for its political patrons:

It cannot be doubted that in a few years Ireland will have recovered from the present fitful fever, and see the error of its present course, but in the meantime the Irish National Party and programme will be probably a thing of the past, and the people will have only the empty husks of Sinn Féin left.[26]

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John Dillon

That such a probability had come about at all was a source of shocked wonder to the Longford Leader, but it did not pretend to see any other. Neither did the IPP itself, not even at its top. “[John Redmond] does not seem to me to realise the situation any more than he did in the winter of 1915-1916,” Dillon wrote cuttingly to T.P O’Connor in November 1917. Come a general election, he predicted, and then “there will be nothing left in Ireland except Republican separatists and Ulster loyalists,” with the IPP confined to history.[27]

He got that right.

Return to Ireland

For some, the day that the IPP was a thing of the past could not come soon enough. When John Redmond warned Westminster that revolution was a-stir in Ireland, he had not been indulging in hyperbole, the proof of which was on full display in Dublin on the Monday morning of the 18th June 1917.

“It was apparent to most citizens when they came within the heart of the city for their day’s business that there was something unusual astir,” wrote the Irish Times, adding sniffily: “The main streets were occupied by people who were not usually abroad at 10 a.m.”

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Crowds watching in Wesmoreland Row as the prisoners march through Dublin

Marching from Westmoreland Station and up Great Brunswick Street came a procession of young men and women, who made their Sinn Féin sympathies clear with the tricoloured flags they waved, the songs they sung, and the group of men in their midst: the one hundred and twenty or so rebel POWs taken during the Easter Rising, newly released from English captivity by a general amnesty.

Onwards over O’Connell Bridge, they crossed into Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the place in which it had all began, and where the sight of the still-ruined General Post Office and other bullet-scarred buildings was enough to inspire a fresh burst of enthusiasm in the crowd. A squad of policemen shadowed the parade, carefully keeping their distance, but no incident occurred as the freed men continued on to Gardiner’s Row, inside Fleming’s Hotel for breakfast and a long-anticipated rest.

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Seán O’Mahony

As they ate, one of their number, Seán O’Mahony, stepped out to address the adoring young acolytes waiting on the street. This, he told them, was far from the end of what had begun on the Easter Week of 1916, over a year ago but still fresh in Irish memories. He affirmed they were still fighting for the same tricoloured flag under which they had done so already in the Rising, for they believed in actions, not words, and would soon resume the great work that had already begun.

After their rest, the released men resumed their march to the offices in Exchequer Street of the National Aid Association, set up to help alleviate their financial needs, and then to the Mansion House, followed all the way by the multitudes. Such was the press of bodies and the heat that one of the former prisoners fainted.

The day’s display complete, the men went their separate ways, at least for now. Some hurried to catch the evening trains back to their homes in the country, while others continued to be the centres of attention as the celebrations continued in Dublin. “Whenever a released Sinn Feiner, or anyone remotely suspected of being one, was observed, cheers were often raised,” reported the Irish Times.

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Group photograph of some of the released prisoners

With their close-cropped hair and conservatively-trimmed beards, it was hard to tell who was who among the freed men. Eoin MacNeill was known to be present, as was W.T. Cosgrave, along with Count Plunkett and Joe McGuinness, the two MPs elected earlier that year on behalf of Sinn Féin for North Roscommon and South Longford respectively.

Worthy names, all, but the most notable one was Éamon de Valera, he who had been in command at Boland’s Mill and now continued to be so over his comrades, as demonstrated earlier that day at Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire] Pier, when they had first lined up on the boat-deck before crossing the gangway in formation, two by two, on de Valera’s order.

His authority continued to be felt throughout the day. “There appeared to be an arrangement amongst the prisoners not to express their opinions publicly in regard to their treatment in prison,” noted the Irish Times. When asked about that, the men merely said that any official statement was to come from de Valera.[28]

Choices and Omens

It was a name that would soon be on everyone’s lips, for the parliamentary seat of East Clare now lay open with William Redmond’s death, and Sinn Féin was determined to capitalise on its previous two electoral wins by adding a third. The lesson of South Longford was that Joe McGuinness had succeeded, not despite his penal status, but because of it, for Easter Week conferred nobility on a man like nothing else in the eyes of the Irish public.

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Sinn Féin poster for Longford, 1917, depicting Joe McGuinness as a prisoner

The choice of another prisoner to contest East Clare was thus essential. Arthur Griffith had been making the case to the Central Election Committee for Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. But, in that, the President of Sinn Féin stood alone. MacNeill’s fateful attempt to cancel the Rising before it could begin, with his countermanding order on Easter Sunday, was too well remembered.[29]

“I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us,” Tom Clarke had instructed his wife, Kathleen, during their final time together in Kilmainhaim Jail while awaiting his execution. “He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country.”[30]

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The countermanding order on Easter Sunday, 1916, as issued by Eoin MacNeill

Not all shared this unforgiving view, but none of the Election Committee besides Griffith were about to risk such a controversial choice. De Valera seemed a far safer bet, being already regarded as the leader of the Irish POWs while they were held in Lewes Prison. But, as he and the others had not yet been released, it was unknown if he would accept the nomination if offered. The decision was thus deferred to a later date, and the Sinn Féin activists already sent to East Clare would just have to work without a name in the meantime.[31]

Not that this presented too much of a problem for Dan MacCarthy, the mastermind behind the previous electoral win. If South Longford had been a battlefield in more than the political sense, with riots, stone-throwing and beatings throughout the campaign, then the next constituency was a pleasant surprise to MacCarthy: “I found the people generally more sympathetic than in Longford and I felt that this was a good omen for our cause.”

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Éamon de Valera

The speech he gave at Berefield Church, after the priest introduced him from the altar to the congregation, allowed him to gauge the public mood, which appeared to be a positive one. As for the identity of the man on whose behalf MacCarthy was in Clare: “Various rumours went round as far as we were concerned. One time we heard it was Peadar Clancy [another 1916 participant], and the next Eoin MacNeill, and finally it transpired to be de Valera.”[32]

Roads to Take or Not to Take

The decision was not an easy one to make, not least because de Valera had been wrestling with it himself even as he took his first step back on Irish soil. Politics was a field utterly new to him, and one he regarded with some trepidation. When news had reached the Lewes inmates in April 1917 that one of their number, Joe McGuinness, was being nominated to run in the South Longford contest, de Valera was among those against any such forays in the electoral sphere.

Instead, the “safest course for us and in the long run the wisest is to continue as soldiers,” he wrote to a friend on the outside. “The Irish Volunteers…must be kept a permanent force at the country’s back…and we must allow nothing to make us forget it.”[33]

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Irish Volunteers

Victory in South Longford made de Valera and many of the others in Lewes revaluate their standoffishness where non-military methods were concerned. After all, the main issue for de Valera, as he explained in a letter to a friend, was not that politics was wrong, but that it was a gamble. “I for one would have to be almost certain of success before I would risk such a stake,” he wrote [underlined in original text].[34]

Success seemed much more likely now, with two by-election wins under Sinn Féin’s belt, but de Valera was still weighing the options by the time of the general release. Patrick McCartan, a long-time Republican activist, found him in a pensive mood on board the ship taking the former prisoners to Dublin.

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Patrick McCartan

“Mr de Valera had already been selected to contest County Clare in the Republican interest. He said he knew nothing about politics and did not like them,” McCartan wrote later. “He believed he could do the best work for Ireland by confining his attention to the organisation of the Irish Volunteers.” Having canvassed in South Longford, McCartan had a more contemporary view of the public mood in Ireland and counselled de Valera to wait and see it for himself before committing.[35]

The enthusiastic reception in Dublin was evidently enough for de Valera, and he decided without further ado to stand for East Clare. There were still finishing touches to be done: as de Valera was not actually a member of the party he was to represent, a session of the O’Rahilly Cumann was quickly convened in Pembroke, Dublin, to wave him in.[36]

Even with that settled, another problem reared its head: the MacNeill one. While some wanted him kept away from East Clare, if not drummed out of the movement altogether, de Valera made it clear that the other man’s presence on the campaign was a condition of his own running. In the teeth of opposition, de Valera had his way, and not for the last time, in what was to be an extraordinary career.[37]

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Countess Markievicz

Still, resentments simmered. De Valera and MacNeill were seated together on the train to Ennis, along with a number of other Sinn Féin activists, when Countess Markievicz entered. Sighting MacNeill, she gave him a piece of her mind, prompting the harried man to take his leave for another carriage. He was brought back by de Valera, who was having none of such unseemly displays.

“There must be no recriminations,” he told the others sternly. That brought a measure of calm to the journey, if not quite peace, for the MacNeill controversy, and what it meant for Sinn Féin as a whole, would linger on for the better part of the year.[38]

Kathleen Clarke’s War

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Kathleen Clarke

For Kathleen Clarke, these gestures of solidary towards a man she considered the worst sort of blackguard was one more reason to be troubled by the direction the revolutionary movement, for which her husband had laid down his life, was taking. “When I heard that de Valera had insisted on MacNeill accompanying him to Clare, it confirmed my fears” about what she considered “the demoralising influence of elections.”[39]

Participating in the British parliamentary system was a contentious practice in Ireland. First Charles Parnell, followed by John Redmond, had made it the centre-piece of their drive for Irish self-rule, but true-blue Republicans like Kathleen and Tom Clarke regarded playing the enemy’s game with suspicion, even hostility.

“I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it,” Tom Clarke had told Seán Mac Diarmada nine years earlier, in 1908. After acting as campaign organiser for Sinn Féin’s unsuccessful foray in the North Leitrim by-election, Mac Diarmada had returned to Dublin to merrily recount the cut and thrust of the contest to his friend.

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Tom Clarke

Tom had listened to him in sombre silence before bringing the other man back down to earth. “Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks,” he had scolded. A chastened Mac Diarmada promised to never again besmirch their cause like so.[40]

Eleven years later, and Sinn Féin was trying again, except with far grander ambitions than a single seat, and packing the clout to succeed this time, much to Kathleen Clarke’s dismay. To her, the only way forward was with the gun. All else was a distraction in her mind, but it appeared that now, with efforts now diverted into electioneering, “we might say goodbye to any more fighting.”[41]

And that simply would not do.

She made an exception for South Longford in May 1917 – Joe McGuinness was an Easter Rising alumni, after all – and after rallying some of the other women bereaved by the Rising, such as Áine Ceannt and Margaret Pearse, Clarke threw herself into this new battle. And a battle it could be in a literal sense. While driving back into Longford town after a rally, her car and those of the others in the group were met with a hail of missiles from IPP partisans.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett, seated in a car during the South Longford election of 1917

Being at the head of the convoy, along with the Count and Countess Plunkett, Clarke’s vehicle bore the brunt of the deluge. The Countess suffered a bloody nose from a thrown bottle, while Clarke just about escaped worse, thanks to the hard hat she was wearing, when a rock struck her head. “The only injury done was to my feelings,” she recalled. “I was mad enough to want to throw stones back at them.”

This was not an isolated incident. The lane the Sinn Féiners had to take to the hotel that served as their headquarters was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ because, as Clarke put it, “every time we passed it stones and bottles came flying out at us.”[42]

Laying the Cards on the Table

Despite the success at South Longford, Clarke remained dissatisfied, one of the many reasons being her antipathy towards those who were reaping most of the gains, however undeservedly. “After the Rising the press, alluding to it, called it a Sinn Féin Rising. This was not correct; the organisation then called Sinn Féin was not a revolutionary one, and it had been very nearly defunct.”[43]

Such misnaming conveyed instant benefits to some: “The fact that the Rising was now being called a Sinn Féin rising gave Arthur Griffith his chance, one he was quick to seize.” This despite how “the Sinn Féin which grew out of the Rising was a totally different one from that which had been in existence before the Rising.”[44]

Traveler Digital CameraIf Griffith was suspect, then MacNeill was contemptible. Assuming de Valera had simply not been informed of his responsibility for the countermand, Clarke decided to enlighten him with an invitation to her house in Dundrum, Dublin, for both him and MacNeill, on the 28th July 1917. When they arrived, Clarke was ready with her case for the prosecution:

I told him of the instructions I had received from Tom in Kilmainhaim Jail, that MacNeill must not be permitted to come back into the National life of the country again, for if he was he would in a crisis again act treacherously. I had promised to carry out these instructions if I could.

The sole reason she was hesitating to do just that, she explained, was because of his arrest following the Rising, which bestowed on him a credibility she could not touch. Having said that, she continued:

Circumstances might still tie my hands, and I might not be able to carry out my promise to my husband, but the story of his treachery would not die with me, that I would write it and leave it as documentary proof against him.

And, with that, the interview mercifully drew to an end, Clarke having laid down the gauntlet to MacNeill. De Valera had listened attentively throughout while keeping – the consummate politician already – his thoughts to himself.[45]

Sacred Principle?

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Eoin MacNeill

Clarke would have been even less thrilled if she knew how close her béte noire had become with the rising star of Sinn Féin. Since their release from Lewes Prison, the two men had been conversing a good deal, and MacNeilll was pleased to learn that the other’s worldview was broadly in line with his own. For the likes of Clarke, it was the Republic or nothing, while MacNeill had only scorn for those “obsessed with the notion that some sort of sacred principle underlay the Republican ideal.”[46]

MacNeill took a more libertarian view. For him, “real freedom consisted in the power to do your own things in your own way and not in any paper definition or a constitutional formula.”[47]

He was careful not to appear too broad-minded, however. When asked for his opinion on which independence policy to pursue, he was as happy as anyone to declare in favour of a Republic, though more out of pragmatism than any deep-seated commitment, as he put it:

It was a matter of comparative indifference for the time what form this independence ought to take so far as I knew there was no practical prospect of setting up an Irish monarchy, and the alternative was an Irish Republic.

In private discussions with de Valera, shortly before the pair set off for East Clare, MacNeill came to believe that the other man “was no more than I was myself, a doctrinaire republican.” Nonetheless, de Valera could appreciate the emotional value of a bold approach, and “urged on me…that the demand for an Irish Republic would present a stronger appeal to the electorate and the public than anything else less definite.”[48]

And so, on that agreed basis, “we fought the Clare Election as Republicans without any qualifications” and won by a steep majority.[49]

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Éamon de Valera (in uniform), speaking before Ennis Courthouse during the East Clare election, 1917

Winning the Argument

That by-election, and the subsequent one for Kilkenny City a month later, in August 1917, put MacNeill in the front-line for the struggle for Ireland’s soul. He was assisted in this by Dan MacCarthy, the Sinn Féin Director of Elections, who, having honed his craft in South Longford and East Clare, knew how to run a tight ship. “His method was very thorough and efficient,” MacNeill noted approvingly:

All of us who were understood to be engaged in the work were supplied, each one, with his own programme for the day, handed to him that morning or the evening before. He was told who was to accompany him, to what places he was to go, and what particular person he was to interview.

Under MacCarthy’s direction, MacNeill was dispatched to court “the hard chaws, old unionists and stiff supporters of the Parliamentary Party”, perhaps because, as a former college professor, he would present a reassuringly respectable emissary, as well as one who could handle himself in a debate. When a local worthy in Kilkenny posed to him if it was honourable for one who had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the British monarch to support an Irish Republic, MacNeill asked if he had MPs or army officers in mind.

Both, was the reply.

Thinking quickly on his feet, MacNeill took each point in turn. With regard to the first, he drew on the case of the 1689 rebellion, when James II had been overthrown in favour of the current line of succession, so what worth was an oath there? As for the second, he simply, but effectively, pointed to the example of George Washington.

“I had the best of the argument but,” MacNeill conceded, “I do not think I got the vote.”[50]

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W.T. Cosgrave addressing a crowd in Kilkenny, 1917

Not that it mattered too much, as Sinn Féin won the seat by another landslide. That made four straight defeats for the once-almighty IPP. Flushed with success and warmed by the camaraderie of the campaign-trail, Sinn Féin enjoyed its halcyon days, which were to make for some bittersweet memories when MacNeill looked back on them.

“The spirit of good order and good humour that animated the whole body of adherents of Sinn Féin at that time,” he wrote, “offers a strange contrast to what was experienced after 1921.”[51]

Conflict…

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Arthur Griffith

Schism almost came early. If Clarke and MacNeill each represented the principled and the pragmatic wings in Sinn Féin, then it was a tenuous balance, one which threatened to tip over from disagreements behind closed doors to an open split. This had almost occurred earlier in the year, in April 1917, at the Mansion House, Dublin, during the ‘Plunkett Convention’, when Griffith and Count George Plunkett shared the stage – to almost ruinous effect.

The latter, who had had one son executed after the Rising and with another two in prison, “was impatient of temperate men or means.” If Plunkett blew hot, then Griffith, in contrast:

Sat there like a sphinx, square and solid, like a man of granite, lacking charm – physically or mentality. Griffith had a mind of ice that could freeze Irish histrionic champagne solid. He was the one cold fact in a sea of fantasy.

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Count Plunkett

Which earned him few friends, particularly among the Irish Volunteers, many of whom “disliked and scorned him.” Proof of such feelings soon manifested on the platform in the form of Plunkett’s undisguised anger at the other man, and only a disruption in the audience – when Volunteers on standby manhandled journalists scribbling away in their notebooks, thinking them to be police detectives – gave enough of a break in the proceedings for a truce between Griffith and Plunkett for the rest of the event.[52]

But it seemed only a matter of time before another confrontation and maybe not one that could be so easily dispelled. If the ideal of the Republic was what held the movement together, it could also, conversely, tear it asunder, and Griffith was reluctant to move in too dramatic a direction, lest the ‘middle ground’ of Irish opinion be alienated just when Sinn Féin was poised to win it over.[53]

With that in mind, Sinn Féin activists in the East Clare election were warned to avoid mentioning the Republic to prospective voters…that is, until their candidate publicly declared for such a goal. The listeners roared their approval at de Valera’s words to the extent that “it was a considerable time before he could resume his speech,” recalled one witness, who was aware of what certain others in the party really thought:

The Sinn Féin members of the election committee were very annoyed, but they were not prepared to come to grips with de Valera, and, if his action was commented upon at a committee which followed the public were not aware of any disagreement.[54]

Another insider present in East Clare, the trade unionist William O’Brien, noted how:

In the course of the election campaign, there was a very sharp division between the speakers. De Valera proclaimed his objective to be the Republic, stating that personally that was the only objective he could stand for. Griffith, Milroy and others took the point of view of the old Sinn Féin organisation.[55]

And yet, despite such differences, de Valera and Griffith seemed to get along on a personal level, far better, in any case, than the latter did with the likes of Count Plunkett or Kathleen Clarke. De Valera, Griffith confided to friends during the course of the Clare election, was to be the future leader of Sinn Féin. As well as being younger, Griffith said in another talk, de Valera was a soldier – no small virtue in the current times – and had, in his opinion, all the makings of a statesman.[56]

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The best of friends? Arthur (left) and Éamon de Valera (right)

Which gave some hope for an amiable resolution that would allow Sinn Féin to move forward – that is, if nothing too disastrous struck in the meantime.

That something almost occurred over Kilkenny, with MacNeill as the trigger, when a by-election was announced upon the death of its MP, Pat O’Brien, in July 1917. Despite the lingering controversy over his countermanding order, MacNeill enjoyed a measure of support in Sinn Féin’s grassroots, such as in the Kilkenny Club which wrote to the Dublin headquarters in favour of nominating him to run.

When the Central Executive replied that it would prefer W.T. Cosgrave, whose CV as a Rising combatant and former prisoner made him a more comfortable choice, “we received an indignant reply that they were not to be dictated to by Dublin and they were sending a deputation to Mr MacNeill asking him to stand.”

…And Resolution

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Tommy Dillon

So remembered Tommy Dillon. As son-in-law to Count Plunkett, Dillon was able to sit in on Executive meetings and so understood the strength of feeling to be found there. While he had nothing personal against MacNeill, certainly not to the extent that Clarke did, he was aware of how “the leaders of the anti-MacNeill group were…influential and the possibility of factions arising could not be ignored” should the question be pushed too far.

It was with this danger in mind that Dillon hurriedly cycled to Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, shortly after the last testy message from Kilkenny, to head off the threatened deputation. Upon reaching the hotel, he was told that the Kilkenny visitors had already left and so he rode on to where he guessed they had gone: the house in Rathfarnham where MacNeill was residing:

When I arrived at the house, a taxi stood in the front grounds.  I asked for [MacNeill] and was told that he was engaged. James [MacNeill’s brother], however, brought him out to me and when I told him the object of my visit he said that the Kilkenny deputation was with him, that he understood the situation and that he was about to refuse their invitation.

MacNeill made no mention in his memoirs of this deputation or of Dillon’s last minute intervention. It is possible to suspect, if one were to be cynical, that MacNeill may not have been ‘about to refuse’ like he said, which Dillon did him the favour of believing. Sinn Féin was able to proceed smoothly in Kilkenny, with Cosgrave on its ticket, to score another unambiguous win.[57]

264But it could not be ‘touch and go’ for the movement indefinitely, and the upcoming Sinn Féin Árd Fheis, set for October 1917 at the Mansion House, Dublin, seemed the best opportunity to finally bury the hatchet over who ordered what for Easter Week. Which was what some dreaded. A few days beforehand, Countess Markievicz visited Kathleen Clarke’s house in Dundrum to ask her to oppose MacNeill should he be nominated for the new Executive.

Having been ‘advised’ – as she put it – by some against such an act, Clarke declined, while warning the Countess that if she was to lead the anti-MacNeill charge herself, she would do so alone. Never one to be deterred by the odds, Markievicz waited for the Árd Fheis to open and then “stood up and attacked [MacNeill] on the question of the secret countermanding orders.”

To Clarke’s dismay:

Her attack got such a bitterly hostile reception that despite my decision not to support her, I got up and did so. It seemed to me that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.[58]

The moderates had their way, and MacNeill was duly voted to the Executive. Sinn Féin had come a long way since its conception in 1905, to the extent that one of the delegates, Áine Ceannt – widow of the 1916 martyr – wondered out loud if the proceedings should be classed as the first Árd Fehis of a totally new organisation. All the same, it was decided to stick with it being the sixth such event for a continuous Sinn Féin – why bring in unnecessary complications, after all?[59]

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The Mansion House, Dublin, the venue for the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis of October 1917

Unconvention

For things were complicated enough as they were. The Sinn Féin delegate for South Mayo, Patrick Moylett, had attended a secret meeting of the Irish Volunteers on the evening before the Árd Fheis. Handed to him was a list of names who were to have his vote when proposed for election to the Sinn Féin Executive.

An indignant Moylett replied:

…that if I were to act on his instruction I would be defranchising [sic] the people who sent me and not doing my duty to them. I objected to the fact that in a democratic institution I should be told how I was to vote.[60]

Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers were two groups normally in lockstep but, even so, not without moments of disjunction. When the time came the next day for the Executive election at the Árd Fheis, a number of delegates interrupted to announce how they had been canvassed beforehand with such lists, their disapproval of this chicanery made publicly clear.

“I wish to associate myself strongly with what has just been said by the previous speakers,” de Valera said, simultaneously supportive while keen to avoid fingers being pointed at a time of supposed unity. “Those who are responsible had probably the very best motives in view, but when we are beginning – as we are – a new Ireland, it will not be necessary to resort to such methods in future.”

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Éamon de Valera

“The sense of the convention is strongly condemnatory of any attempt to run tickets,” added Griffith as president. “If that system were allowed to go on, it would destroy the movement in a few years.”[61]

With that said, the election went ahead, resulting in the appointment of the twenty-four members of the new Executive, along with  a change of presidency in the form of de Valera, by unanimous consent when the two other contenders, Griffith and Count Plunkett, as per a prior agreement between them, had the good grace – and political nous – to step back.

In doing so, “a split between the extremists and the moderate section was narrowly averted,” wrote the police report for October. Which was one more worry for the Inspector-General, Joseph Bryce, to give to his employers in Dublin Castle:

The state of political unrest…continued without abatement during the Month, and a marked advance in organization was made by the seditious Sinn Fein movement.

If the Sinn Féin of old under Griffith had been of the moderate persuasion, then now “the majority of Sinn Fein leaders owe their present prominence to active participation in the late rising” with the same zealotry carried over. De Valera was a case in point: from being an obscure teacher, he was now instructing an audience in Co. Clare, with the air of a general marshalling his troops, to ready themselves for an opportune moment to strike again.

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Irish Volunteers

Other speeches from Sinn Féin figures were of a similar calibre and, in light of such blatant calls to sedition, Bryce warned:

It is obvious that several are prepared to plunge the country into another rebellion should a favourable opportunity occur, and that the whole movement must be regarded as a serious menace to the state.

And yet, at the same time, “the majority of the adherents of Sinn Fein are believed to be averse to physical force.” For all the talk of war and rebellion repeated, “it will be noticed that drilling activity [of the Irish Volunteers] is so far confined to the S.W. area.”[62]

Alpha to Omega, Omega to Alpha

This ambiguity over violence was reflected in the Árd Fheis when Father O’Meehan, as one of the delegates, proposed an amendment to the Sinn Féin constitution: that the words “means available”, in regards to obtaining Irish freedom, were to be followed by “deemed legitimate and effective.”

By ‘legitimate’ I mean not according to British rule in Ireland, but according to well-established etheral [?] and Christian principles. Our enemies would, for instance, be glad to say that assassination comes under this, and it is in order to prevent them saying that that I move this addendum.

In case such talk smacked too much of Redmondite ways, “I did not use the word ‘Constitutional’ because that has a bad flavour,” the priest added, earning himself a round of applause.

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Sinn Féin postcard

The proposed change was ultimately withdrawn. Opposing it had been Cathal Brugha, one of the more militant Republicans in the hall. Nothing in their constitution as it stood would lend itself to the interpretation that so concerned Father O’Meehan, Brugha insisted. In any case, the point was moot, as “we do not intend to meet English rule by assassination,” he said firmly.[63]

As for a second Rising, that possibility, when raised, was met with laughter.[64]

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Éamon de Valera (left) with Cathal Brugha (right), 1922

If constitutional flavours left a sour taste, and with the other end of the spectrum still too strong to stomach, how then was Sinn Féin to proceed? Father Gaynor hoped to answer this when he next rose to speak. “I have come here as a delegate with the sympathy of the men from Clare to move that we do not set up a political organisation,” he said, “and we have come here in the hope that we will find something better to do.”

Instead of following in the footsteps of the Irish Parliamentary Party with another political machine, Gaynor urged, the convention must establish nothing less than a ruling body with a mandate for the whole country. In doing so:

We should make the position straight by showing that we do not want a Sinn Féin party versus the Irish Party, but a Provisional Government versus Dublin Castle and the British Government.

Which was rather putting the cart before the horse, as many of the other attendees in the hall pointed out. For all the lofty proclamations of nationhood and the Republic, there still remained the gritty task of earning the right to speak for Ireland.

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Sinn Féin postcard

“This organisation is a national organisation in the broadest sense of the term but, all the same, it cannot be regarded as a constituent assembly,” de Valera pointed out. “Surely we have got beyond the stage where politics should be regarded as roguery and politicians as rogues.”

Others would have disagreed. But, while the likes of young Todd Andrews, as he watched John Redmond being hounded in the streets, may have dismissed politicians as a low and dirty breed, Sinn Féin was nonetheless nearing the point where, in beating the system, you become the system.[65]

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Sinn Féin postcard

References

[1] Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917), pp. 88-9

[2] Irish Times, 23/05/1915, 26/06/1915

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 104-6

[4] Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919), p. 249

[5] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 272

[6] Ibid, pp. 270-1

[7] Ibid, p. 271

[8] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[9] Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995), p. 112

[10] Gwynn, p. 249

[11] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[12] Denman, p. 111

[13] Gwynn, p. 255

[14] Irish Times, 08/03/1917

[15] Meleady, pp. 272-3

[16] Ibid, p. 273

[17] Ibid, 11/07/1917

[18] Denman, p. 114

[19] Ibid, p. 118

[20] Gwynn, p. 266

[21] Meleady, p. 240

[22] Ibid, p. 267

[23] Ibid, p. 268

[24] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[25] Gwynn, pp. 259-60

[26] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[27] Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968), pp. 425-6

[28] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[29] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), p. 134

[30] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 137

[31] O’Brien, p. 134

[32] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), p. 16

[33] McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017), p. 112

[34] Ibid, p. 113

[35] McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932), p. 9

[36] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), p. 106

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

[38] Nugent, p. 106

[39] Clarke, p. 188

[40] Ibid, p. 55

[41] Ibid, p. 188

[42] Ibid, pp. 186-7

[43] Ibid, p. 178

[44] Ibid, p. 193

[45] Ibid, pp. 190-1

[46] MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin), p. 90

[47] Ibid, p. 97

[48] Ibid, p. 90

[49] Ibid, p. 91

[50] Ibid, pp. 91-2

[51] Ibid, p. 91

[52] Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996), pp. 107-8

[53] O’Brien, pp. 99-100

[54] Nugent, p. 107

[55] O’Brien, pp. 135-6

[56] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698), Part II, p. 171 ; MacCarthy, p. 20

[57] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, pp. 396-7

[58] Clarke, pp. 193-4

[59] Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 54

[60] Moylett, Patrick (BMH / WS 767), pp. 13-4

[61] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, Trinity College Library, Dublin, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019), pp. 29-30

[62] Police reports from Dublin Castle records, National Library of Ireland, POS 8544

[63] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 18-9

[64] O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952), p. 719

[65] Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention, pp. 22-3

Bibliography

Books

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

Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)

Denman, Terence. A Lonely Grave: The Life and Death of William Redmond (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Good, Joe. Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon Books Publishers, 1996)

Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919)

Lyons, F.S.L. John Dillon: A Biography (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1968)

MacNeill, Eoin (ed. by Hughes, Brian) Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar (2016: Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin)

McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Limited, 1932)

McCullagh, David. De Valera, Volume 1: Rise, 1882-1932 (Dublin: Gill Books, 2017)

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

Milroy, Seán. Memories of Mountjoy (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. Ltd., 1917)

O’Hegarty, P.S. A History of Ireland Under the Union (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952)

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Bureau of Military History Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

Moylett, Patrick, WS 767

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

Article

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

Trinity College Dublin Collection

Report of the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Convention held in the Round Room Mansion House, Dublin on Thursday and Friday 25th and 26th October 1917, Arthur Warren Samuels Collection, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=SamuelsBox1_027 (Accessed 14/08/2019)

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

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

Vote for McGuinness who is a true Irishman,

Because he loved Eireann and fought in her cause,

And prove to the Party and prove to the world,

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

(Sinn Féin election song)

The Changing of the Guard

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

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Longford Leader, 7th April 1917

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

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Charles Parnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’

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

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John Redmond

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

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

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

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

Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.

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

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

On the Defence

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

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

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

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Anti-Home Rule postcard

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

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

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

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

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

Teething Troubles

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Arthur Griffith

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

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

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

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

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Arthur Griffith’s treatise for Irish indepedence

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

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

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

The Plunkett Convention

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

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The Mansion House, Dublin

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

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

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

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Count Plunkett

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

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

“Callous and Disdainful”

Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:

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

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

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

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

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

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Sir Francis Vane

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

The Most Important Thing

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

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The Sinn Féin offices at 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

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

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

Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:

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

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

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

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Michael Collins

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

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

Choosing

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

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William O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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Joe McGuinness

Objections

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

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

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

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The Longford Arms Hotel today

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

Secrets Kept

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Dan MacCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin election poster, showing Joe McGuinness

‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’

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

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

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Joseph Mary Flood (in the robes of a barrister)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Decision Made

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Patrick McKenna

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr Joseph Hoare, Bishop of Ardagh

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

Escalation

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

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

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Men of the Royal Irish Constabulary

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

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

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

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

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

Choices

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Kevin O’Shiel

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

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

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John Dillon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Devlin

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Joe Devlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Flags

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

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

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J.P. Farell, MP

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

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

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

‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’

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Laurence Ginnell

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

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

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Countess Plunkett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patrick McCartan

‘A Powerful Hold’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin postcard

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

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

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Sinn Féin activists during the Longford election

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

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

Episcopal Intervention

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

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Cardinal Michael Logue (standing) with other Catholic clergy

“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:

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

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

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

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

Dear Sir,

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin

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

‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’

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

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T.P. O’Connor

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

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

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

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David Llyod George

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

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

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

Final Judgement

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

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

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

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

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

The paper read: McKenna has won.[46]

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

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

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

Lost and Found

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

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

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

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

As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:

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

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

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

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Sinn Féin poster on a carriage, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Confusion of Factions’

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

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

Their blood runs red in your Irish veins,

You are the sons of Granuaile.

So show your pride in the men who died,

And vote for the man in gaol.[56]

(Sinn Féin election song, South Longford, 1917)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

Ouroboros Eating Its Tail: The Irish Party against Sinn Féin in a New Ireland, 1917

References

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

[2] Longford Leader, 07/04/1917

[3] Irish Times, 04/04/1917

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

[5] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1017

[6] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[7] Ibid, p. 274

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

[9] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[10] Lennon

[11] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[12] Lennon

[13] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[14] Lennon

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

[16] Irish Times, 10/04/1917

[17] O’Brien, pp. 106-7

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

[19] Meleady, p. 277

[20] Longford Leader, 14/04/1917

[21] Meleady, p. 277

[22] Ibid, p. 278

[23] Irish Times, 05/05/1917

[24] Ibid, 07/05/1917

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

[26] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[27] O’Shiel, p. 41

[28] Meleady, p. 278

[29] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[30] O’Shiel, pp. 41-2

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

[32] Irish Independent, 07/05/1917

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

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

[35] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[36] Ibid, 08/05/1917

[37] Irish Independent, 08/05/1917

[38] Ibid, 09/05/1917

[39] Ibid, 10/05/1917

[40] Meleady, p. 267

[41] Ibid, p. 271

[42] Ibid, pp. 271-2

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

[44] Irish Times, 09/05/1917

[45] MacCarthy, p. 14

[46] Ibid, p. 15

[47] O’Shiel, pp. 42-3

[48] MacCarthy, p. 15

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

[50] O’Shiel, p. 43

[51] MacCarthy, p. 15

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

[53] MacCarthy, pp. 13-4

[54] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

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

[56] Doherty, p. 5

[57] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

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

[59] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Roscommon Herald

Book

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doherty, Bryan, WS 1292

Ginnell, Alice, WS 982

Good, Joseph, WS 388

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

McCartan, Patrick, WS 766

McCormack, Michal, WS 1503

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Shouldice, John, WS 679

Wyse-Power, Charles, WS 420

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

 

Rebel Exile: Intrigue and Factions with Liam Mellows in the United States of America, 1916-8 (Part IV)

A continuation from: Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

Finally in America

Safe in New York, if unsettled, Patrick Callanan pined for his friend and former commanding officer, Liam Mellows. Other Irishmen had joined him in the United States, also fleeing in the wake of the failed Easter Rising, but Mellows was not amongst them.

Callanan had discussed him with John Devoy when he visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper – of which Devoy was editor – after coming to New York in November 1916. Callanan reassured Devoy, a Fenian old-timer and one of the most powerful men in the Irish-American community, that Mellows was on his way. And yet, with no further word, Callanan could not help but worry.

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New York, circa 1900

His own journey had been an arduous one. After the disbandment of the Galway Volunteers at Limepark House on Mellows’ reluctant orders, Callanan was among those forced to go on the run. He first hid out with his cousins in Co. Galway, before moving to Co. Clare and then Waterford town, from where he took a boat to Liverpool, and then another to Philadelphia.

The Atlantic crossing took nineteen days, at risk all the while from German submarines. When nearing the mouth of the Delaware River, the crew was told to extinguish all lights lest they betray their position to any lurking U-boats. After disembarking safely, Callanan pushed on to New York, where Devoy and the Irish-American organisation he headed, Clan na Gael, welcomed him with open arms as a fellow revolutionary.

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Count von Bernstorff

Provided with some money by Devoy for living expenses. Callanan could at least take a well-earned. But waiting idly did not suit him, nor did it for many of his compatriots in the city, and the initiative was made – without consulting Devoy – to contact the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.

Following some consultation with Berlin, Bernstorff was able to report back the willingness of his government to land arms and soldiers on the west coast of Ireland. Considering the lacklustre support Germany had granted to the previous uprising earlier in the year, this was a questionable claim, but Callanan took it at face value.

Callanan was abed one night in December 1916 when he was woken by someone pulling at him. To his surprise and joy, it was none other than Mellows. The two comrades-in-arms had not seen each other since leaving Limepark House, eight months ago. After sleeping the rest of the morning in bed together, Callanan took him to the Gaelic American office and introduced him to Devoy, who was quite taken with the newcomer, praising him as the most capable man who had yet arrived (Callanan did not seem offended by this), and going so far as to offer him a job on his newspaper.

Devoy would not be quite so amiable when learning of the contacts made with Count von Bernstorff. The émigrés had gone behind his back, on his territory of New York no less, and Devoy was fiercely intolerant of anything that encroached on his prerogatives. His anger was a sign that life in America for the Irish exiles would not necessarily be an easy, nor a straightforward, one.[1]

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(Left to right) Roger Casement with John Devoy in New York, 1914

The War Continues

Callanan let Mellows in on the arrangement for Germany to supply arms and men to Ireland. Having been let down before by their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, Mellows thought it best to proceed with care by first sending a man to Germany and another two to Ireland to ensure the whole process went smoothly. Callanan went along with Mellows’ amendments to the plan without a murmur. After examining some maps together, they agreed that the Martello Tower near Kinvara, Co. Galway, would make the best landing site.[2]

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Martello Tower, Co. Galway

It would be but another move in the fight for Irish freedom, which had been paused but never ceased as far as Mellows was concerned. He was especially keen to correct all talk to the contrary, as Callanan described:

At this time rumours were current in America that there would be no more fighting in Ireland and that all we wanted was to be represented at the Peace Conference [when the First World War was over]. Mellows resented this very much and he stated at several meetings that Ireland would fight again, and what we wanted was arms.[3]

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Liam Mellows

Even when Callanan moved to Boston, the two men remained in contact. One Saturday – the day he usually visited New York to see Mellows – Callanan found his friend in an especially serious mood.

Mellows told him that he had been in communication with a German woman living on the West Coast. She was willing to offer a boat of hers at their disposal if a crew could be provided. For this, Mellows tasked Callanan with finding four or five others to serve as firemen and coal-passers, while he would inquire after engineers.

The plan was for Mellows to lead the others in sailing through Russian waters to Germany, taking the lengthier westwards route rather than the more direct Atlantic one to avoid the British navy. In Germany, the boat would be loaded with munitions and then landed in Ireland, as previously discussed.

Fired up, Callanan agreed to do his part and succeeded in recruiting four sailors-to-be, but when the pair met again on the following Saturday, Mellows admitted to being unable to muster enough engineers. The plan was cancelled and, while it would not be the only arms-running attempt, it was but the first of many setbacks Mellows faced in the Land of the Free.[4]

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New York, circa 1900

A Great Spirit

In the meantime, there were other ways to further the cause. To his delight, Callanan found that in the States “a great spirit prevailed at this time, especially among those of Irish descent. They were all very anxious to hear about the happenings of Easter Week.”[5]

It was a zeitgeist Clan na Gael was keen to tap into it, and Mellows spoke on behalf of the society at a series of meetings. As one of the participants in the Rising, and a leading one at that, Mellows made for an especially effective speaker, holding his audiences spellbound with his tales of the heroics from that fateful week.

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Robert Briscoe, in later years

His oratory, remembered one witness, Robert Briscoe, “made you see things he had experienced, and dream the same great dreams.” Though the revolution had been bloodied, Mellows assured his listeners, it had not been broken. It lived on, seething beneath the seemingly pacified surface of the country. This was music to Briscoe’s ears. The vision Mellows invoked “struck deep into my soul, bludgeoning my common sense.”

Since landing in the United States from Dublin in December 1914, Briscoe had lived the life of a Horatio Alger hero, earning his first dollar as a humble packer before partnering in a lucrative company that produced Christmas tree-lights. But the American dream proved not enough, as Briscoe found his thoughts returning to his homeland, piqued in particular by the news of Easter Week.

Hearing Mellows speak confirmed to Briscoe what he had to do. Turning his back on his thriving business, he took on the duties of shipping guns to Ireland. In time, he would become a close friend of the man who had made him a convert.[6]

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Sinn Féin postcard, 1918

Frank Robbins

While Mellows was helping to clear the doubts of others, he was having some of his own. “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today I would never have fired a shot,” he told Frank Robbins as they were walking together in New York in mid-1917.[7]

Like Mellows, Robbins had fought in the Rising, except in his case he had been a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), in charge of occupying the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Released from Frognoch Camp in August 1916, his defiance, like that of Mellows’, remained undimmed as he assisted in the ICA revival, or at least tried to, as it lacked the necessary funds and contacts to make much of an impact anymore.

But Robbins did not allow himself to despair. When asked by Tom Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), to head Stateside and connect with the Union’s erstwhile leader, Jim Larkin, Robbins readily accepted.[8]

Union
Irish Trade Union Congress, with Jim Larkin (second from the right, seated)

Reaching New York in late 1916, Robbins made the acquaintance of many in the radical Irish-American scene, including Devoy and Mellows, the latter he came in contact with through a mutual friend, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Week martyr, James Connolly. Both Robbins and Mellows had been close to her father, but they had not met until Nora passed on Mellows’ address at 73 West 96th Street, where he was staying with the Kirwan family.

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John Mitchel

Robbins was thrilled to meet a man who had been so influential in revolutionary circles back in Ireland, and who continued being so in New York, recognised by all, according to Robbins, as the de facto leader of the ‘1916 exiles’. The appreciation was reciprocated, with Mellows giving Robbins a copy he had signed of John Mitchel’s classic Jail Journal.[9]

Doubts and Uncertainties

And so it was with some surprise that Robbins heard Mellows express such bitter incertitude. Only the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had the authority to declare an uprising, Mellows said, and that had been appropriated. To Robbins’ astonishment, Mellows castigated those responsible as a junta which had ignored everyone else in its pursuit of its own intrigues.

Robbins thought this change of heart was due to what certain other Irish émigrés had been saying, but Mellows adamantly denied this to be the case. Robbins then methodically dissected Mellows’ volte-face.

He had been singing the praises of the Rising, while eulogising James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse and all the others who had laid down their lives to rejuvenate Ireland’s soul, bringing the cause of national freedom to the world stage, and saving its manhood from British servitude. With all that said, if Mellows now believed the opposite, he should go back before the people of America and tell them so.

“But before you do that, I would ask you to examine the whole matter thoroughly,” Robbins continued. For if Mellows was still uncertain, he would have to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and whose efforts, Mellows had to agree, were now bearing the fruits the two of them were looking forward to gathering.

“Thanks, Frank,” Mellows replied, “I never looked at it that way. You have eased my mind considerably. I was very worried about the whole matter.”[10]

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Frank Robbins

Another disagreement was when Mellows posed the question as to what form of government a free Ireland should take. As Robbins was a staunch republican, and knew Mellows to be the same, he assumed his friend was jesting in his contention that the people should be free to choose, whether it be a republic or monarchy, but the conversation grew heated as Mellows refused to back down.

“He continued to uphold the view that it was for the people to decide,” Robbins wrote years later, still in shocked wonder. He assumed that Mellows “had not expected opposition from me but having taken the stand he would not retreat. So the talk ended in disagreement,” and not for the last time.[11]

By a quirk of fate, Mellows would end up opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an unacceptable compromise, while Robbins, who had denounced anything short of a Republic, accepted the agreement for something that fell short of that ideal. But such contradictions and tragedies were to be for the future.

The Search for Guns

Mellows came to trust Robbins enough to bring him in on his latest German gun-running mission. The version he had arranged with Callanan had been elaborated into three separate landings in Co. Wexford, Down and Clare. In preparation for this, Mellows was to work on a fruit-boat from New York to Montevideo, and from there take another to Spain, where a submarine would pick him up for the final leg of the journey to Germany. Thinking he was looking for assistance, Robbins volunteered his services, but Mellows at first demurred.

‘Our friends down town’, by which Mellows meant Clan na Gael, had ruled this to be a one-man job. Robbins was a little mystified at this, and wondered if Mellows had simply failed to be assertive: “It was not for me to make a comment but I thought that had Mellows pressed the need for a second it would have been conceded.”

Regardless, it was agreed between the pair that Robbins would play a part after all, by searching around the docks for some helping hands. He believed he was aiding his friend by covering for his personal deficiencies:

He was not very conversant with dockside life…In many ways I found him to be a bit of an introvert which made it very difficult for him to mix with the many different kinds of men one meets in sailors’ haunts.

(Which – considering Mellows’ past success with making friends in Fianna Éireann and the IRB, and then the Irish Volunteers, to say nothing of his exploits in escaping from England in time for the Rising, and the subsequent flight to America, the latter which saw him surviving the toils of working life on board a ship – seems an unfair statement on Robbins’ part.)

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New York docks

One point of contention was Mellows’ insistence on total secrecy, which was all well and good – until he cited Jim Larkin in particular as someone to keep in the dark. Offended, Robbins asked if this was due to Larkin being a socialist because, if so, Mellows could rule him out as well for he too was one.

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James Connolly

A distraught Mellows insisted this was not so, arguing that while he knew naught about socialism, he also had nothing against it, having read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and finding it much to his liking. When Robbins pressed for a reason, Mellows refused to say, only that he would divulge at a later time – which he never did.

With this disagreement pushed to the side, the two men got down to business. Robbins was to remain in New York until he received word that Mellows was en route to Spain, at which point he would return to Ireland and alert their fellow revolutionaries to the incoming weapons.

“However, the arms plan never came to anything,” Robbins admitted.[12]

John Devoy

Robbins later found a reason for Larkin being persona non grata to Clan na Gael: the temperamental ‘Lion of Labour’ had delivered a tongue-lashing to Devoy in the Gaelic American office, accusing him of snobbery in favouring the Irish Volunteers with money while ignoring the more working-class ICA members in America. Larkin may have ruled the ITGWU with an iron fist, but he was not in Ireland anymore and, in Devoy, he met his match as an autocrat.[13]

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Jim Larkin, mugshot taken in 1919

Not that Robbins spared the curmudgeon much sympathy. Although he had been sent to contact Larkin, Robbins was soon disgusted with his bilious rants and found himself much preferring the company of Devoy. He was amazed at the older man’s intelligence and how “he could foresee developments well in advance of most writers.” Devoy’s austere dedication also impressed Robbins. Instead of the money and fame that Robbins believed Devoy could have earned, he:

…preferred to travel a lonely, torturous and unpopular path for the meagre salary of twenty-five dollars per week, which he regarded as being sufficient to take care of his very simple way of life. His only regard was the advancement and, if possible, the achievement of the freedom of Ireland, and be counted as one who had given service to that cause throughout his whole life.[14]

Robbins was a witness to the extent of Devoy’s influence at a packed Clan na Gael convention in the Central Opera House. After a succession of stirring speeches about the historical fight for Irish freedom had put the audience in the appropriate mood, Devoy implored them for funds with which to carry on that same mission.

This prompted a number of delegates to leap to their feet and compete for the stage to proudly announce the amounts they personally, and the Clan clubs they represented, would be donating.

“They were almost shouting each other down in their anxiety to be heard,” wrote Robbins, awed by the memory.[15]

central-opera-house-205-east-67th-st_1_bde20fb7c8202d0c40f66570ca7ba1daOthers were less impressed by the grizzled Fenian. Sidney Czira (née Gifford, sister-in-law to Joseph Plunkett) complained that Devoy tried to separate the ‘1916 exiles’ into different states. The purported reason was to lessen the risk of police surveillance, which Czira conceded was a concern. But she attributed this policy of Devoy’s less to safety and more to his suspicions.

“He had this extraordinary obsession that there was somebody always interfering or intriguing against him,” she wrote with a sigh.[16]

But, of course, even paranoiacs have enemies. One of whom in Devoy’s case would just happen to be Czira.

Sidney Czira

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Sidney Czira (né Gifford)

About March or April 1917, Robbins received a written invitation to Czira’s apartment in Amsterdam Avenue. When he arrived, he found Mellows and other ‘1916 exiles’ also there. Czira explained the purpose of the meeting: she wanted to replace Clan na Gael, whose leadership she believed was out of touch with the struggle back in Ireland, with a new fraternity, the nucleus of which would be the ‘1916 exiles’.

After some discussion, the guests made their way out. Mellows asked Robbins what he thought. Robbins was blunt: what was the point of undermining their number one patron in a country they knew little about? The only thing this could accomplish was the hurting of their own cause.

Mellows agreed – at least, on the surface. Robbins thought that was the end of the matter – until a new organisation did indeed come into being, the Irish Progressive League.[17]

At its forefront was Czira, who threw herself into the fray of activism, as she described:

We set up a shop, the front part of which was devoted to Irish books, pamphlets, periodicals, postcards, badges and the usual propaganda material. This must have been 1918 because we had in the window a map which we used in the way that war maps were used at this time, by sticking pins with little flags to indicate the constituencies in which Sinn Féin were victorious in the election.[18]

As if this was not enough, Mellows set up a society of his own sometime later, the Irish Citizen’s Association, intended for use as a pressure group on Clan na Gael. Such behaviour would forever be a puzzle to Robbins: “In later years I often asked myself if Liam Mellows was partial to the first project and founder of another. Or was he under the influence of someone else?”

It was inexplicable to Robbins that his friend could act this way after they had agreed on the foolishness of such maverick ventures. Perhaps the answer, Robbins speculated gloomily, lay within their national psyche: “Sometimes I think the Irish have an inbuilt genius for disagreement and disunity.”[19]

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St Patrick’s Day postcard

Clan na Gael

If the Rising of 1916 had ‘changed, changed utterly’ Ireland, in the words of W.B. Yeats, then the entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 – on the side of Britain, no less – had a similar effect on Irish-America. Outspokenly pro-German before, Clan na Gael was forced to ask itself if keeping to its stance was worth the hostility from the rest of the country, now on the lookout for unpatriotic malcontents within. The answer, as far as Devoy and the rest of the Clan old-guard were concerned, was ‘no’.

Others like Mellows vehemently disagreed. To those who had risked life and liberty in Dublin’s streets or the fields of Galway during Easter Week, suggestions that they now enrol in the American army and fight alongside the same enemy as before were intolerable.

uncle-samThis clash between pragmatism and principles – not the last in Mellows’ life – soon boiled over into public view, such as when a Clan convention on Easter 1917, for the first anniversary of the Rising, was disrupted by audience members loudly objecting when the platform speakers urged them to enlist. So stormy was the mood that hall stewards ordered the protestors to remove their tricolour badges, which was refused.

Though Czira was not present, being at home with her two-month old baby, she heard much about it when many who were disgruntled at the stance the Clan was taking visited her apartment to discuss what should be done. Of particular concern was the agreement between the American and British authorities that the former could conscript British nationals, among which the Irish who were not American citizens had been classified.

In a series of open-air meetings protesting against enlistment, Mellows took the lead, mixing impassioned oratory with cutting humour. With reference to the poster ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ that was plastered about the city, Mellows suggested that an answer should be: “I was tracking around New York the Irish who were trying to obtain their liberty.”

220px-daddy2c_what_did_you_do_in_the_great_war3fDispleased at this unseemly independence, the Clan na Gael Executive gave Mellows a stark choice: speak no more at such meetings or forget about his Gaelic American job. The man who had disbanded the Galway Volunteers in the face of a hopeless situation only with great reluctance was not going to back down now, and the Clan soon learnt about the sort of enemy its former golden boy could be.

When the first day of a Clan gathering in New York in 1918 passed without any speakers making reference to the ‘German Plot’ – over which a number of arrests had been made in Ireland on allegations of German collusion – there was considerable outrage in the hall. That none of the ‘1916 exiles’ were among those on stage was another cause for resentment.

The second day of the convention came and still not a word was said about the arrests, leading to shouts for Mellows, who was on the premises, to be allowed to speak. Taken to a backroom, Mellows – as he told Czira afterwards – was accused by the Clan bigwigs of being behind the upheaval, which he denied.

As a small compromise, and in the hope of diffusing the tension, Mellows would be allowed on the platform to bow before the audience, but on no condition was he to speak. Of course, as soon as he was on stage, he denounced the arrests and, for added effect, proposed a resolution of protest.

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Liam Mellows speaking at Bodenstown, 1922

“American papers on the following day commented that although the proceedings were very dull on the first day, they were certainly very lively on the second,” Czira commented dryly.[20]

John Devoy

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John Devoy

At least relations between Mellows and Devoy remained cordial, if lacking the same warmth as before. “I fear for the Irish movement in America when the Old Man dies,” Mellows told Robbins in the belief that there was no one who could fill Devoy’s shoes. It was a sentiment he would repeat on numerous occasions, according to Robbins.

Similarly, Devoy continued to hold Mellows in high regard, however personally he took their widening estrangement. A rumour that he had financially neglected Mellows to the point of starvation wounded him, as did the other man’s silence on the issue, which was taken by many to mean an affirmation.

“You know how much I loved Mellows,” he said to Robbins, who had managed to stay on good terms with both. “I loved him as if he had been my own son.”

He said this in the Shelbourne Hotel during his visit to Dublin in 1924. Mellows had been dead for almost two years, put before a firing-squad of his fellow countrymen, but the memory of his failure – or refusal – to dispel the whispers of ill-treatment lingered on as a knife in the old man’s gut.[21]

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John Devoy being greeted by a guard of honour during his visit to Dublin, 1924

Mellows caught something of the complexity of their relationship in a letter to Nora Connolly, dated to September 1919:

I broke completely with the Gang. Lots of things happened – more than I can write about and more than was known even among friends. Threatened with expulsion from everything. Told them to do it. They backed down. Resigned from the office at the same time. Was begged to remain by Uncle. Did so.

That Devoy was ‘Uncle’ was telling in the familial choice of word. Despite Mellows agreeing to remain with the Gaelic American, he complained of a “campaign of the most vile and conscious slander” against him.[22]

1926909_10202332464346455_20930640_nThis toing-and-froing, akin to a fraying marriage, could not last indefinitely. Mellows had been staying in the apartment of Patrick Kirwan, the brother of a leading Irish Volunteer in Wexford, where Mellows’ mother hailed from. Upon his first meeting with Mellows, Kirwan was delighted to learn that they knew many of the same people from Wexford.

The Kirwan home of 73 West 96th Street became a centre for him and his friends. The Kirwans did not seem to mind the constant flow of guests, taking care to make each of them welcome, and Mellows was close enough to the family to stand as godfather to their third son.

Father Magennis

After two years of this cosy arrangement, Mellows abruptly left in mid-1919 without warning. The Kirwans found that he had been moving his books out in batches without telling them until the last day. It was only later that they learnt he had relocated to Manhattan’s East Side, the Carmelite School on East 28th Street, where he was employed as an Irish language teacher, having abandoned the Gaelic American for good.[23]

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Father Magennis

The head of the monastery, Father Peter Magennis, had long been a source of aid for the ‘1916 exiles’. When Czira found it impossible to send letters back home due to the strict censorship, Magennis delivered her correspondence, and that of many others, while he was over in Ireland.[24]

After Mellows collapsed at his first replacement job as a labourer, it was Magennis who had given him the teaching post, a role more suited to his education. His health, until then in a perilous state, began to mend.[25]

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Mary Ward, who nursed Mellows in New York (and later married Frank Robbins)

Mellows was, according to Robbins, “subject to spells of despondency and was inclined to neglect himself.” When two female friends learnt of his plight, they visited him in the East Side and succeeded in nursing him back to health. It was for this bleak period that Devoy was blamed for starving him. It was an unjust accusation to Robbins’s mind, and Mellows seemed to allude to this misconception in a story he told Czira.[26]

When he was young and sick in bed, he had overheard the doctor attribute his state to malnutrition. Thinking someone was blaming his mother for not feeding him properly, an enraged Mellows tried to rise out of bed and attack the doctor. Still, as Devoy bemoaned to Robbins, Mellows made no effort to correct the impression.[27]

Patrick McCartan

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Patrick McCartan

Mellows was still on amiable terms with Devoy when, in mid-1917, Dr Patrick McCartan came to New York and – in keeping with the new tradition for Irish revolutionaries on arrival – visited the Gaelic American offices. Robbins were there with Devoy when Mellows introduced him to the newcomer.[28]

Much like Mellows and Robbins, the thirty-eight year old McCartan had already had a colourful career as an Irish freedom fighter. He had spent time before in America, working as a barman in Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph McGarrity, the leading Clan official in the city.

By 1905, McCartan had returned to Ireland, buoyed by a loan from McGarrity to pursue a medical career, and also to encourage a growth of radical politics in his native Tyrone, a task he fulfilled with enough vigour to be ‘honoured’ in a police report with the accolade of being “the most dangerous man in the county.”

But he was evidently not dangerous enough for some. Despite joining the IRB Supreme Council in July 1915, McCartan was among those side-lined in the planning of the Easter Rising. When the big event came, McCartan was as lost as anyone, and ended Tyrone’s involvement by sending its Volunteers home unbloodied.[29]

After disappearing from the county for some months, McCartan re-emerged in Tyrone at the end of 1916 and was arrested in February 1917, being deported to England along with a number of others. Three months later, he came back to Ireland in time to campaign for Sinn Féin in the South Longford by-election.

“Nothing further was known of his movements until it was announced that he had arrived in America, where he had succeeded in reaching by working his passage as an ordinary seaman,” reported the Irish Times.[30]

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A Sinn Féin election poster for Patrick McCartan, 1918

Before McCartan had left Ireland, it was decided by the IRB leadership that he would join Mellows on his much-anticipated mission to Germany. Mellows was to handle the purchase of arms while McCartan tended to the political aspect. The duo were allocated some leeway in their plans, depending on circumstances, as McCartan put it:

Mellows and I were left free to do what we thought best on reaching Germany but one or both of us was to accompany the war material, to the arranged spot, on a fixed date. If we could get more than one consignment, either of us was to remain behind to escort the second cargo. Mellows and I were delighted with this plan, for which the Clan undertook to make the arrangements.[31]

There was just one snag: McCartan was an idiot.

Lost and Found

While he talked with the other three in the Gaelic American offices, the subject arose of a certain document that McCartan had left behind on the ship that had brought him over three days earlier. It was a linen document, making a case for Irish independence, addressed to the US President and to Congress, and bearing the signatures of twenty-six individuals from the 1916 Rising. The linen had been specially prepared and starched so that the words could be written in indelible ink, before washed back into a pliable state and then sewn into the lining of McCartan’s waistcoat.

It seemed the perfect cover – until McCartan feared he would be searched on entry to New York. So he left the document on board.

Quite what he had intended to do then was unclear, as was the importance of the document, for during the conversation with the other three, McCartan could not make up his mind on whether it was worth retrieving. Exasperated, Robbins:

…drew Mellows aside and asked him to find out from the doctor if, in fact, the document was important. If it was I undertook to try and obtain it from aboad ship.

When Mellows asked how he intended to do this, Robbins said he would bluff his way through by pretending to be looking for a job. McCartan looked relieved at this plan of action, and so he, Mellows and Robbins left Devoy and went to the West Side where the ships were berthed. Deciding that fortune favours the bold, Robbins pressed ahead:

At the entrance to the docks I walked very smartly in without taking any notice of the guard. As I walked on I heard a voice shout “Halt” but paid no attention. Next there was a rush of feet, a few swear words and I was asked did I want a so-and-so bayonet into me.

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Frank Robbins

Robbins did not. All wide-eyed innocence, he turned to the furious guard, who demanded to see his pass. Robbins tried feigning ignorance as to why a humble job-seeker like him would need such a thing, but when that made no headway with the other man, he spun a sympathy story about how he had missed his ship out due to drink and was in desperate need of another job.

Moved by this tale of woe, but not enough to give way, the watchman asked Robbins if he knew the bosun and, if so, whether he could vouch for him. Robbins confidently said he did but, when the guard left to find the bosun, he knew that the jig was up and retreated to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.

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Joseph McGarrity

That was not the end of the missing document, for it finally appeared in the possession of Joseph McGarrity. McCartan had visited his old friend in Philadelphia immediately after landing in New York, during which he might have handed the document to him. If so, that was a severe breach of protocol, given that Devoy was the point-man in America for the IRB.

Still, Robbins was not entirely convinced by this explanation:

Having been present at the discussions…with Devoy, Mellows and himself, I formed the opinion that McCartan was genuinely concerned about leaving the document on the ship, and that it was afterwards rescued by contacts made by Devoy.

Another version of how Devoy retrieved the item was by demanding it in person from McGarrity, who instantly surrendered it. When Clan na Gael ruptured into hostile factions, McGaritty and McCartan would side with the anti-Devoy camp, suggesting that it was not coincidental that McCartan gave the presidential letter to McGarrity over Devoy. If so, then Devoy was being far from unreasonable in seeing plots against his authority.

As for the declaration, it was eventually given to President Wilson, though not on the original linen.

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The address to President Wilson and Congress

“Frank, McCartan would never make a good revolutionary and do you know why?” Devoy asked Robbins one day in the office. When his companion replied he did not, Devoy explained: “Because he can never make up his mind and I attribute that weakness to the fact that he smokes too many cigarettes.”[32]

Robbins took a similarly dim view of the newcomer, albeit for reasons other than a penchant for tobacco, believing him to be a bad influence on Mellows. When Mellows shocked Robbins by questioning the rightness of the Easter Rising, and his accusations that the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Robbins heard the echo of McCartan’s words in Mellows’, and blamed the Tyrone native for filling his friend’s head with such doubts.[33]

In time, Mellows would be similarly unimpressed with McCartan and his unreliability. McCartan “was the only man I could say that Mellows was even bitter against,” recalled Peadar O’Donnell.[34]

Beekman Place

For the moment, however, Mellows and McCartan worked closely together, with both becoming regular visitors to Czira’s apartment at Beekman Place. When she happened to mention that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had told her that she had seen off some members of the German embassy, whose time in America were over due to the wartime severance of diplomatic relations, McCartan was surprised. He had been told by Devoy that there were no ships leaving the States.

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Ocean liner

The next morning, McCartan returned with Mellows in tow. Mellows asked Czira if her German friend knew whether it would be possible for them to take the same route out. That Mellows had come at an unusually early hour indicates how excited – and impatient – he was.

(Mellows kept a loose schedule in general, to the point of being a night-owl. He would think nothing of dropping by Beekman Place, regardless of the hour. Czira remembered how on one occasion Mellows was leaving in the morning and bade the milkman ‘Goodnight’.)

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Liam Mellows

When Czira returned with Haslau’s answer in the affirmative, Mellows and McCartan asked to be put in touch with her, which Czira did. She urged them not to tell any of the Clan elders like Devoy, but McCartan replied it would not be fair to keep the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.

She also questioned the involvement of a Dr von Recklinghausen, a friend of Haslau’s, who handled German propaganda in the States. Czira urged Mellows against bringing him to their gatherings at her apartment, fearing the German was too obvious a target for police surveillance, but he assured her he would be careful not to be seen in von Recklinghausen’s company. She was further alarmed when Mellows took to meeting von Recklinghausen in Haslau’s flat at the other end of the terrace from hers.[35]

For once, she and Devoy were in complete agreement. He warned McCartan that Haslau’s house was under constant watch by the authorities, but the conspirators continued to meet there regardless. Given that Devoy had already been proved wrong about the lack of ships leaving America, there seemed little reason to heed his caution.[36]

Setting in Motion

When Callanan answered Mellows’ summons to see him in New York after Sunday Mass, he found him with several others, including Robbins. Mellows, he noted, appeared distraught. When asked the reason, Mellows, pent-up for too long, laid his cards on the table.

Clan na Gael could no longer be relied on, he said, with the exception of a few allies such as McGarrity in Philadelphia. With no further hope of smuggling arms from America, they were wasting their time here. The only thing left to do was for them to go back to Ireland, while Mellows intended to reach Germany to find aid there.

Callanan and another man present, Donal O’Hannigan, agreed to return home as soon as possible. Meeting Callanan later in the week, Mellows told him that he had a good chance of making it to Germany via a Belgian relief ship that was waiting by the docks. From Belgium, Mellows explained, he could go to Holland and then onwards to his destination.[37]

Mellows explained this plan to Devoy, with McCartan and O’Hannigan present, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That he did so showed that relations between him and Devoy had not yet completely broken down. Indeed, the old Fenian had been busy on Mellows’ behalf, cabling Germany to obtain the password – the not overly imaginative ‘Berlin’ – the others were to use when communicating with German intelligence. When Mellows, McCartan and O’Hannigan were leaving the hotel together, they noticed four men shadowing them, whom they assumed were police agents.[38]

New York City Exteriors And Landmarks
The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York

O’Hannigan and Callanan were able to obtain their seamen’s papers without much fuss. The same could not be said for Mellows and McCartan, thanks to the latter’s chronic incompetence.

When the pair went to the Shipping Board, as Mellows related to Robbins, they were questioned about the previous vessels on which they had worked. Which was only to be expected, this being standard practice, but McCartan managed to give the wrong name of his supposed last ship, answering instead with what his seaman’s book said was his second last. He also guessed incorrectly when asked if he had worked as a seaman or a fireman.

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(Left to right) Patrick McCartan and Liam Mellows

The official excused himself for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he stamped their books as being in order. All seemed as it should – except that from then on, Mellows was to complain about a feeling of being constantly monitored. His watchers were less than subtle, such as when the letter box for the Kirwans’ flat – where Mellows was then still living – was broken apart and the opened letters discarded in the hallway, or the stove added to the street corner across from the Kirwans’ apartment to keep the policemen waiting there warm at night.[39]

Entombed

Czira was surprised when Mellows failed to arrive one evening as he usually did. The next day, with rumours swirling of Mellows’ arrest, she was visited by another of the exiles, a Tipperary man called Michael O’Callaghan. Usually so cheerful, O’Callaghan merely sat there in gloomy silence.

Knowing his volatile reputation – O’Callaghan had fled Ireland after shooting two policeman dead – Czira was afraid to ask anything about Mellows. When O’Callaghan finally left for the night, it was much to her relief. He was arrested almost immediately after, as Czira heard:

He was followed by an American detective and was growing more and more irritated as he walked through the streets, wondering over the fate of Mellows, he suddenly saw in front of him in a shop window a large picture of John Mitchel, grandson of the patriot, who was then running for Mayor of New York and who was an out and out Britisher. (I think there was some pro-British sentiment on the poster.)

This was the last straw as far as O’Callaghan was concerned, and he went up and smashed the window. He was promptly arrested.

When Czira went to Haslau’s flat, she was told by her German friend that she had heard nothing about von Recklinghausen since he and Mellows departed from her house together in the early hours. Haslau then telephoned von Recklinghausen’s apartment, only to be curtly informed by the landlady that not only was he not there, he was not expected back anytime soon.

For he and Mellows had been detained together after leaving Haslau. McCartan was picked up later by the Canadian authorities in Halifax where he was waiting for his outbound ship to be repaired.[40]

While visiting Mellows in Tombs Prison, Robbins was shocked at the noise and confusion. He was led by a warden along a line of half-open cages, to the one where Mellows was waiting with something urgent to say. At first they tried talking in Irish but the din, combined with Robbins’ imperfect grasp of the language, meant that the two men had to switch to English. Even then, the pair had to shout at each other over the babel of voices to understand the little they could.

Robbins left Tombs rather shaken: “It certainly was an experience never to be forgotten.”

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The Tombs, New York

Beforehand, while on his way to the prison, Robbins had broken the news of the arrests to Mellows’ friends, such as Nora Connolly, as well as stopping by the Gaelic American offices. Devoy was out of town, so Robbins left a message for him. He did not think anything in particular of Devoy’s absence.

Connolly and another friend, Margaret Skinner, saw Mellows in Tombs later that day and, being more fluent in Irish than Robbins, they were able to discern what Mellows wanted them to know. They then went to the Kirwan house and found behind a picture in the dining-room some papers that the detectives had missed in their search.[41]

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Margaret Skinner

‘A Sinn Fein Rebellion’

Nonetheless, the authorities were able to secure a significant cache of paperwork, according to the Irish Times:

A considerable amount of literature and papers, interesting to the American Government, were taken in the raid on Mellowes’s [alternative spelling] and Von Recklinghausen’s premises, but it will be some time before the ramifications of the plot can be thoroughly exposed.

Nonetheless, it was speculated by the New York Times “that the arrests of Mellows and Von Recklinghausen have frustrated a Sinn Fein rebellion, which was planned for next Easter, on the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion.” Whether or not Mellows and his colleagues had had anything quite as ambitious as that in mind is debatable, though the possibility must have been a tempting one.

Also noted was how:

Recklinghausen had been mentioned as an envoy whom Count Bernstorff left here. He is also associated with a group of Turks.[42]

Which made sense, given how Turkey was allied to Germany. According to Czira, however, this supposed Turkish connection came due to a misunderstanding, as a vice-consul for Turkey was living in the flat above her. This entirely innocent diplomat “had made a very bad calculation when he moved into Beehan Place, thinking this was a nice quiet spot!”

Czira, meanwhile, was doing her best, along with Connolly, to help their imprisoned friend. Connolly approached some of the leading Clan na Gael members for help with the bail money, only to be refused. When the two women tried Barney Murphy, the owner of a successful saloon, he listened sympathetically. He was willing to help, he said to them, though he would first have to discuss it with others.

After a couple of days we read in the New York papers that at last somebody put up bail and there was a slightly sarcastic reference to the delay and the unknown person who had come forward.

Judge Cohalan
Judge Cohalan

Murphy, the ‘unknown person’ in question, later told Czira that when he had talked with Judge Daniel Cohalan, a prominent Irish-American politician who was close to Devoy, Cohalan warned him not to get mixed up in ‘this German plot’. Nonetheless, Murphy went ahead and put up the bail money for both Mellows and McCartan, taking care to keep his involvement a secret.[43]

‘Hard, Wretched Days’

Mellows’ case lingered on in legal limbo. Every time he appeared in court, his bail was continued and the case adjourned. With no end in sight by early 1918, Robbins theorised to him that proceedings were being deliberately prolonged by the American Government until the end of the European War, so that it would avoid having to either imprison or deport him, and risk angering its Irish citizens.[44]

feature-waldorf-astoria-de-valera-devoy-2
Left to right: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, Éamon de Valera, John Devoy (seated), Patrick McCartan and Diarmuid Lynch, in New York, 1919

The strain wore on his nerves. America was becoming for him a “mild form of purgatory,” he confessed to a friend in August 1918. The plight of Catherine Davis, “a poor Galway woman”, could easily apply to him. He had met her in a New York hospital at her request. Suffering from a heart ailment, she was desperate to hear about her homeland, and her one desire, as Mellows recounted in a letter in January 1919, was to die there. “Her delight was obvious when I answered her salutation in Irish and told her I knew her birthplace well.”

Sometime later, when hearing that Davis was on her deathbed:

[I] called at the hospital…Poor soul! Her one earthly wish will never be gratified. Her days, nay, her very hours are numbered. She didn’t recognise me at first, and then, when she did, was unable to speak: [she] simply held my two hands and repeated time after time, “don’t go.” I stayed with her for about an hour and had to tear myself away. She will never see Ireland again and her heart is broken.

It was a miserable tale that countless immigrants, himself included, could relate to all too well: “To eat their hearts out in exile and to die in the land of the stranger with their thoughts on the land of their love.”[45]

The emotional scars were to stay with him. Even after years had passed, with much that had happened, as Mellows and his companions in the Four Courts awaited the assault by their erstwhile comrades, “he spoke of hard, wretched days in the United States,” wrote Ernie O’Malley.[46]

Mellows would stay Stateside until returning to Ireland in mid-1920 to take up his role in the war against Britain. In the meantime, he remained a fixture on the Irish-American scene, however little he liked it. New York had become a “maelstrom of bitterness and perversity,” where “prejudice is rampant – fierce – unbelievable.”[47]

220px-harry_boland
Harry Boland

Still, despite his woes, Mellows never entirely lost his impish sense of humour. Michael Collins would tell a story, one which tickled him considerably, of a performance Mellows delivered during Éamon de Valera’s visit to the United States in 1919. At a large fund-raiser, after some words from de Valera, Devoy, McCartan and Harry Boland, Mellows gave a parody of the speakers before him.

“We collected five hundred thousand pounds for the loan in Dublin. We did. Be Jaysus, we did,” Mellows said in imitation of Boland. He then had to escape the enraged others through a fire escape.[48]

To be continued in: Rebel Operative: Liam Mellows Against Britain, Against the Treaty, 1920-2 (Part V)

References

[1] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 405), pp. 2-6

[2] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[3] Ibid, p. 8

[4] Ibid, p. 9

[5] Ibid, p.8

[6] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 44

[7] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), p. 173

[8] Ibid, pp. 94-5, 153-4

[9] Ibid, p. 160-1

[10] Ibid, pp. 174-5

[11] Ibid, p. 179

[12] Ibid, pp. 167, 170

[13] Robbins, Frank (BMH / WS 585), p. 125

[14] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 160, 165

[15] Ibid, p. 161

[16] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), p. 36

[17] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 191-2

[18] Czira, p. 40

[19] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 192

[20] Czira, pp. 37-41

[21] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 193

[22] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 16

[23] Robbins, pp.176-7

[24] Czira, pp. 36-7

[25] Ibid, pp. 39-40

[26] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 177

[27] Ibid ; Czira, p. 40

[28] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 170

[29] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 46-7

[30] Irish Times, 03/11/1917

[31] McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932), p. 16

[32] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 170-3

[33] Ibid, pp. 174, 193

[34] O’Malley, The Men Will Talk To Me, p. 23

[35] Czira, pp. 41-3

[36] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 180

[37] Callanan, p. 11

[38] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), pp. 32-3

[39] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 180

[40] Czira, pp. 43-5

[41] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 180-1

[42] Irish Times, 03/11/1917

[43] Czira, pp. 44-6

[44] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 181

[45] Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 221

[46] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 116

[47] Nelson, p. 221

[48] Broy, Eamon (BMH / WS 1285), pp. 29-30

Bibliography

Books

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

McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932)

Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

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

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Callanan, Patrick, WS 405

Czira, Sidney, WS 909

Broy, Eamon, WS 1285

O’Hannigan, Donal, WS 161

Robbins, Frank, WS 585

White, Alfred, WS 1207

Newspaper

Irish Times