One could almost hear the grinding of teeth from Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as he received the latest dispatch from Co. Offaly, concerning an attempt to waylay a British troop-train in February 1921. Two months had passed before a missive from Seán Mahon, O/C of the Second Offaly IRA Brigade, reached Dublin, apologising to Mulcahy for the delay. He had been busy inspecting the various battalions under his authority, Mahon explained; also, Fleming, commander of the First Battalion which undertook the ambush, had been sick for some time and recently relieved of duty.
With these excuses down for the record, Mahon next provided statements from three participants in the ambush, all telling much the same story: how, on the morning of the 26th February, Mahon had called in on his Quartermaster, Seán Robbins, to inform him about the incoming train. Robbins passed this on to Fleming, who came to see Mahon for his orders, which were to mobilise as many IRA members as possible.
This Fleming did, and he brought the selected men to the railway line in anticipation of the enemy transport, but an aeroplane passing overhead unsettled them, for there was no cover to hide for miles. Fleming decided to dismiss all but eight of his subordinates in order to keep the party small and, hopefully, less noticeable. The plan had been to derail the train and then launch an all-out attack on its stranded carriages but, with the reduced numbers, this was amended to a derailment only. However, by the time the remaining eight got into position to do just that, the train was already passing by, as had the opportunity.
To Mulcahy, this was not good enough, the report doing no more than confirming the “whole story of incompetence and slovenliness.” From now on, Mulcahy warned in his letter of reply to Mahon, the Offaly officers were:
…to recognise that work of this kind is simply tinkering with the honour of the nation and playing with the lives of the men who are acting under you, and that there must not be a repetition of it. Unless each individual Officer in Offaly no. 2 shows that he appreciates the responsibilities he shall have to go, and I am taking steps to ensure that a stricter watch will be kept over them in the future.
Mulcahy intended to see this followed through. Writing to his colleague in the IRA GHQ, he told Eamon Price, the Director of Organisation, that Mahon must be stripped of command on account of his failure. Replacing him was to be a man by the name of McAllister, sent by GHQ and accompanied by a vigorous new training programme for the Second Offaly Brigade.
The Chief of Staff was guarded about the chances of improvement, telling Price that “it may be that [McAllister] would fail at this work, but it is possible that we may get some use out of him.” Besides Mahon, other Offaly officers were to be cashiered if deemed necessary until the area was left with the best or the least worst, depending on what came first.
Presumably ‘McAllister’ was a nom de guerre in the event of IRA correspondence falling into British hands. Identifying this individual is complicated by how no less than three organisers were sent in succession to the Second Offaly Brigade, to help stimulate an area GHQ clearly believed lacking in the appropriate martial spirit.
The first was none other than Jeremiah Mee, one of the policemen in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who had mutinied at Listowel, Co. Cork, over ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders and subsequently resigned to begin a new career on the other side as an IRA operative. Mee arrived sometime at the end of 1920 or early 1921, but his opinion of the job before him was a low one, considering it:
…impossible to carry out a major operation in the area, and his advice to us was to carry on with the road blocking and sniping of convoys as much as possible.
So remembered Patrick Riordan, Vice O/C of the Fourth Battalion within the Second Offaly Brigade. Riordan had been with the revolutionary movement since 1918, when Offaly consisted of a single brigade until August 1920, when it was divided into two such units, and Riordan’s Coolderry Company found itself in the second, southern one.
In keeping with the rest of the county, the War of Independence in Co. Offaly evolved gradually, from painting seditious slogans on walls and the flaunting of tricoloured flags, to regular parades and drilling, and then coordinated assaults on RIC bases. The first engagement was against Clara Barracks on the 2nd June 1920. Riordan did not participate directly, being assigned instead to the blocking of outlying roads in order to impede enemy reinforcements.
Three weeks later, another operation was launched, this time against Borrisokane Barracks on the 26th June, and Riordan’s company was again busy in road-obstruction. Though Borrisokane is in North Tipperary, it was close enough for the Offaly IRA to cooperate on this occasion with its neighbouring brigade.
Though both the sieges of Clara and Borrisokane Barracks failed to penetrate their walls, they kept the pressure on Crown forces. Riordan’s Fourth Battalion encompassed Birr, Coolderry, Clareen and Rathcabbin; by mid-1920, its two main points of contention were Crinkill Military Barracks, occupied by the Leinster Regiment, and Birr, likewise heavily garrisoned, in this case by the RIC.
A direct attack on either was out of the question, but Riordan and his comrades took solace in how the enemy rarely ventured out of their strongholds, and even then only in large numbers. It was an admission that the countryside belonged to the IRA, a point underlined by the trenching of roads, the destruction of bridges and the odd sniper-shot to alarm or scratch even the strongest of British convoys.
Hit and Miss
This was a low-key style of warfare which Mee advised them to continue with, but the next organiser from Dublin, Liam Hogan, nurtured greater ambitions for South Offaly, as Riordan described:
Hogan was keen to carry out a big operation and he decided to attack the night patrol of RIC men and Black and Tans in the town of Birr. This patrol consisted of anything from 12 to 20 men armed with rifles and revolvers. Several meetings were held beforehand and we submitted particulars of the time the patrol usually left the barracks, the route taken and the approximate distance between the files.
In order to augment the advantage of surprise: “Hogan’s idea was to launch the attack by men positioned at street corners and in gateways.”
The night of the 5th March 1921 was selected as the date of this mission, with twenty-six men from the Third and Forth Battalions mustering outside Birr, armed with shotguns, revolvers and a handful of rifles. In charge, and wise enough to temper boldness with caution, Hogan sent out three sets of scouts, each consisting of two men on bicycles, into town from separate directions. It was not long before the waiting party heard shots ringing out.
As one of the three cycling pairs had neared the Catholic Church in Birr, the RIC were waiting to fire upon them, wounding Laurence Langton, the Vice O/C of the Third Battalion (IRA officers being expected to lead from the front) and subsequently capturing him. But the heaviest blow was to the IRA morale, when the remaining outriders pedalled back to alert the others about the policemen in and about Birr:
This was a most unexpected development, as no enemy forces, except the regular patrol (who, by the way, did not come out that night), were expected to be out of the barracks.
Clearly, the RIC had been forewarned somehow. Hogan called off the ambush for a more opportune time, which he judged to be the 11th March, six nights later. The group of fifteen IRA men, including Hogan and Riordan, waited in Birr at Bridge Street, guns at the ready, but the police patrol did not get that far, instead cutting its time short with an early return to the safety of Birr Barracks.
Hogan was recalled to Dublin, having tried his best. A third hopeful organiser, Thomas Burke, arrived as a replacement in time to take over from Seán Mahon as Brigade O/C upon the latter’s arrest and imprisonment. It was not quite the way envisioned by Mulcahy when he decided to replace Mahon; nonetheless, Burke held the rank by the time of the Truce in July 1921.
The Active Service Units (1)
Top-down or bottom-up? To be directed from above or entrusting the grassroots to do their part? That was the constant question in the relationship between the IRA units and their GHQ, one that was never entirely put to rest. Judging by his letters, Richard Mulcahy saw his duty as that of a teacher and guide: a pushy, opinionated, constantly frustrated one, that is, but willing to play a hands-on role in the war.
To that effect, General Orders were issued sometime in 1921 – probably March – for the forming of flying columns or Active Service Units (ASU). They were to consist of eighteen foot-soldiers, along with two squad commanders and one unit commander, making it twenty-one members altogether. Numbers were to be allocated to each man, by which to be identified, instead of names, for security’s sake. As for recruitment eligibility:
The men for the A.S.U. will be drawn from each Battalion and will consist mostly of officers, possibly experienced ones. Men from the ranks will not be drawn save (a) when their area is too hot to hold them. (b) when they possess technical knowledge – e.g. motor-driver, machine-gunner. (c) when they had had considerable fighting experience. (d) when they are likely to assume commissioned rank.
This was not a new development; rather, a codification of what was already in the field. For a while, in early 1921 as the pace of the insurgency quickened, the Offaly Second Brigade could boast of two such columns. One was based in Clara, under the command of Thomas Fleming. As O/C of the First Battalion, his was a natural appointment, with a respectable curriculum vitae that included the attack on Clara Barracks, helping to obtain arms, destruction of enemy supplies and a six-week stint in jail.
Fleming was on less sure ground when it came to his short-lived time in the column, as he told the Pension Advisory Committee, fourteen years later, in 1935:
Q: Had you any ASU in your area?
A: I had. I was in charge.
Q: When was it formed?
A: It was formed the latter part of March .
Q: How many were in it?
Q: You were in charge?
A: There was a chap sent down from Dublin first, named William Hogan. He was recalled and I was put in charge.
Q: What month?
A: Last week in March or early in April. I cannot be definite.
Q: Had you that going up to the Truce?
A: No, we disbanded it in April.
Q: It was only a month in existence?
A: Fifty percent of my area was boggy, and Headquarters came to the conclusion that it could not be operated.
Q: You were disbanded by Headquarters?
A: The Brigade O/C.
Q: Who was he?
A: John Mahon.
Q: What was the idea, that the area was not suitable?
A: It was all bog and flat. We could only come together at night and disband in the daytime, if we had to keep it up as it should have been but we could not do so.
Q: Had the ASU three scraps when they were together?
Later that day, Fleming amended his previous statement to the Board: his ASU had indeed been disbanded in April 1921, albeit temporarily. The unit was revived soon after for an operation in Banagher, but the difficulties and false-starts that were a constant feature of the war continued:
Q: That did not come off?
A: The whole place was full of [British] military.
Q: Your intelligence system was bad?
A: It was good in one place and bad in another. On the whole, the intelligence was bad. It was good in my battalion area.
Q: You mention going to Banagher?
A: There were about forty fellows in that thing. The Brigade O/C was in charge.
Q: In Banagher?
A: Yes, Seán Mahon.
Q: Were they called out for another job after Banagher?
A: They were brought to Portumna. Then Commdt. Burke said it would be madness to go to Portumna.
Q: What month was that?
Q: And the thing practically did not function after that?
A: About the latter end of April. It was in small units.
The other flying column produced by the Second Offaly Brigade was based in Kinnitty and led by Joseph Connolly, who described it as such:
There were ten permanent men in my active service unit. This number was augmented as required from the local companies in whose area we were operating. Each of the ten permanent men was armed with a service rifle and revolver.
Michael Cordial, as one of the column, remembered it differently, in that the group consisted of a mere five: himself, Connolly, Michael Seery, Michael Carroll and Joseph Scully, each armed with a Lee Enfield rifle captured in an earlier raid.
Regardless of the column’s exact composition, it was with four men that Connolly went to Kinnitty on the 17th May 1921, in response to an alert that a RIC patrol would be passing through. The ASU had already been hard at work in stripping motorcars of material for creating road-mines, prompting sweeps by British forces and arrests of IRA members, though not of ones already on the alert.
“In most cases the raids proved futile,” Connolly recorded. Judging it time to take the fight to the enemy, and:
Having organised the ASU, we spent some time doing special training, as well as arranging for billets in different parts of the area. We lay in ambush at different places, but the enemy did not come.
Connolly hoped that Kinnitty would prove the exception. His column had already spent two days waiting in the Mountbolus district for a Crown patrol, but the dispatch that arrived on the morning of the 17th May promised better odds of success, despite the distance of ten miles from Kinnitty. With only two hours to spare, Connolly procured a car from a local sympathiser to drive him and his four comrades to Kinnitty.
The police had already passed by, Connolly was told upon arrival, and so the ASU settled in the village in anticipation of their return:
I decided that Michael Carroll and I would occupy the old burned down RIC barracks. I instructed Michael Cordial to take Joe Scully and Jim Gleeson to the chapel yard and take up positions there, and to attack the rear of the patrol.
These names tally with those provided by Michael Cordial in his account, with the exception of Jim Gleeson/Michael Seery. Otherwise, the layout of the ambush party matches in both versions, with Cordial noting how the trees and shrubbery in the chapel-yard provided decent cover.
‘This Hitherto Tranquil and Orderly Locality’
“The decision as to whether and when fire was to be opened rested with me,” according to Connolly. In order to maximise their firepower and economise bullets:
I gave definite instructions to the party that each man was to pick off his man according to the position he occupied, i.e. the right-hand man of the attack party was to fire on the man on the right side of the patrol, the centre man of the attacking party to fire on the centre man of the patrol, and the man on the left to pick off the man on the left side of the patrol, so that with our first volley we would kill or wound five of the enemy.
They did not have long to wait for the targets to appear, the seven RIC men cycling together until they split, three moving along the Main Street and the remaining four continuing on a different route that took them right in front of the ambush party in hiding. Connolly and Carroll signalled the attack with an outburst of bullets, with the other three following suite immediately after, unloading a few volleys before retreating to safety; at least, according to Cordial.
Connolly tells a slightly different version, in that the shootout between his subordinates and the RIC, who dismounted from their bicycles to return fire with their rifles, lasted for an hour or more and only ended when word of military reinforcements, incoming on lorries, forced the ASU to break off their attack. Considering the hit-and-run nature of the guerrilla war, a fight of that length seems unlikely; in any case, the enemy had been left bloodied and broken, and Connolly could count his column’s first strike a success.
Whether local opinion would have agreed with that upbeat assessment is another matter. The area had so far avoided the turmoil of the rest of Ireland but now, reported one newspaper:
The happy peace so long enjoyed by Birr and other districts in South King’s Co. was shockingly broken on Tuesday by a tragic occurrence in Kinnitty, which occasioned general consternation in this hitherto tranquil and orderly locality.
Of the two RIC men wounded from the encounter, the worst hit was 22-year-old Constable John Dunne, a native of Co. Galway, who lived for only two hours before expiring. A week later, the other casualty, 26-year-old Constable Edward Doran from Athy, also perished of his injuries in Birr Military Hospital, despite the efforts of surgeons summoned from Dublin. A bullet had shattered Doran’s thigh, making recovery unlikely from the start.
All places of business were closed for the funerals in Birr, and window-blinds respectfully drawn by private residents as the cortèges passed, the coffins draped in Union Jacks and escorted by police and military guards of honour, as well as the relatives and friends of the deceased, to the mournful tune of Beethoven’s Funeral March from the army bands at the head of each procession.
The decorum appears to have been more than just lip-service, for the Very Rev. Archdeacon Ryan condemned the killings from the pulpit during Mass, describing Dunne and Doran as “harmless and exemplary in conduct in the discharge of their duty.”
It was around this time that an aeroplane flew over Birr to drop notices that were headed: “To members of the I.R.A.”, warning that they would be treated as prisoners of war only if commanded by a person responsible for his subordinate, wore a distinctive sign or uniform recognisable from a distance, carried arms openly and generally conducted themselves in accordance with the established laws of war. “Any civilised nation would lawfully execute men dressed in civilian clothes who tried to kill soldiers or police,” the notes added ominously.
The authorities did more than caution. Amidst the sweeps by British military and police that followed the Kinnitty Ambush, Cordial’s brother, William, was arrested at the family home, and found his captors to be unusually lenient, suspiciously so:
An officer offered to give him a chance to escape and advised him to make a run for it to a wood what was about 150 yards away. He refused to move which was fortunate for himself, as at least a dozen soldiers concealed at the fringe of the wood, had their rifles trained on him.
As if that was not enough, William Cordial and a second prisoner that day:
…were twice taken down from the lorry and put against a wall to be shot but on each occasion was saved by an intervention.
Michael Cordial did not record who his brother had to thank on either occasion, but noted how Kinnitty was visited by Black-and-Tans, who had prepared petrol-cans on the street in readiness to burn the houses when a priest persuaded them otherwise. If Constables Dunne and Doran had been harmless and exemplary in their conduct, the same could not be said of every man in Crown uniform, particularly as the struggle in Co. Offaly became defined by tit-for-tat acts of violence against whoever was at hand.
The Cordial family continued to suffer, with frequent raids in which, on one occasion, the elderly father was forced to his knees at the end of a rifle and told to say his prayers. At this point, his daughter grappled with the man holding the gun, disarming him in front of the rest of his party who did nothing to intervene one way or another. They did, however, warn the old man that he would be shot if Michael was not present next time they called. Cordial Senior very sensibly stayed away from home, as ‘on the run’ as his son, until the Truce in July 1921.
Perhaps it was as much due to this backlash as logistics that Connolly was informed that:
The Brigade Staff decided that a unit of five men was too small to carry on as an Active Service Unit and we received orders to disband and to dump the rifles, which we concealed in a sandpit.
There was still a war to wage, nonetheless. When an IRA scout saw a man being dropped off by a RIC party near Mountbolus, he passed on word to Connolly, who arranged for the interloper’s arrest. Connolly gave scant details in his later account, only that the wannabe spy was “tried by courtmartial and sentenced to death. The sentence was duly carried out.”
While RIC policemen and British soldiers were Crown agents, and spies the enemy within, not every incident was so obvious. On the 30th June 1921, eleven days before the Truce put the war on hold, two young brothers were making hay in a field when they found themselves surrounded by a group of masked men – numbering around forty, according to witnesses – who led them at gunpoint back to their nearby house at Coolacrease, Cadamstown. Once there, Richard Henry and Abraham Pratt Pearson were told, in front of their three sisters and two visiting female cousins, that the family home was to be razed.
However bad, that appeared to be the worst of it, as one of the Pearson sisters told a reporter from the King’s County Chronicle. “I knew they were going to burn the house,” she said, “but I did not think there was going to be any shooting.”
There was. While some of the intruders searched through the building, breaking furniture or sprinkling petrol over the interior, others took Richard and Abraham to the backyard and shot them at least six times each, while their kinswomen were forced to watch.
Dr Frederick Woods was summoned from his home in Kinnitty by a caller who said there had been shootings at the Coolacrease House. He arrived by bicycle, to find the two Pearson brothers, both grievously wounded, on a mattress in a field. Testifying later at the enquiry at Birr Military Barracks, Dr Woods described how:
Richard seemed to have bled considerably, having superficial wounds in the left shoulder, right groin and right buttock, in addition to which there were several wounds in the back, one of which had probably penetrated the lung. He also found a wound in the left lower leg, also of a superficial nature. They might have been caused by rifle or revolver bullets, which, in his opinion, were fired at close range, the wound being saturated with blood.
Police came to take the wounded pair to their barracks in Birr, though Richard, 24-years-old, did not last two hours upon arrival, while Abraham, 19, died the next morning. Both were unmarried and living with the rest of the Pearson family. The father, William, was away at a wedding and a younger brother had been with friends; had either been present at the time, they too would have been killed, according to Cordial, who left an account of the incident, more than three decades later, as part of his submission to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957.
According to Cordial, the bloodbath was a culmination of a feud with the Pearsons, who were “violently opposed to the National Movement and they looked with contempt on local Volunteers or IRA men”:
Things reached a climax some time before the Truce when they [the Pearsons] fired with shotguns on a small party of Volunteers who were blocking a road. One Volunteer, a man called Heeney, was seriously wounded. A full report on the matter was made to the Brigade staff who after serious deliberation ordered that the four male members of the Pearson family should be executed and their house burned down.
As Quartermaster of the Third (Kinnitty) Battalion, Cordial was presumably part of this discussion, though – unlike in the rest of his BMS Statement – he made no mention of his own role, if any, preferring to leave an impersonal – a cynic might say studiously so – narrative. When he came to the actual event, the details provided match those given by the unnamed Pearson sister: thirty IRA men captured Richard and Abraham in a hay field, and shot them in the yard of their house, which was then put to the flame. Proper protocol for capital punishment was observed, as Cordial told it, with the two brothers informed of their impending fates and a firing-squad assigned to the task.
“Heavy explosions were heard while the house was burning which indicated that a large amount of ammunition was stored in it,” Cordial added, portraying the whole episode as a conflict between armed combatants, each side a danger to the other, as opposed to a family bushwacked without mercy or warning. Coolacrease was perhaps not quite the sort of military operation Mulcahy had in mind when he prodded the Second Offaly Brigade to do better – and compared to more celebrated feats from the time, it falls somewhat short – but war is war, and the results are as they are.
Life was not easy for Richard Mulcahy. As Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he had endured months as a fugitive from the British authorities, hunted amidst the streets of Dublin and at grave peril to his wellbeing. With the Truce in July 1921 drawing the war to a pause, Mulcahy could have expected some peace of his own. Instead, no sooner had one conflict ended did another intensify, except this was with someone he should have called a comrade: Cathal Brugha, the iron-willed, not to say highly-strung, Minister for Defence in the underground government that they both belonged to.
A shared cause did nothing to assuage tensions between the two leaders, as the latest flashpoint in their simmering row erupted over typewriters, of all things: the owner of a company specialising in their manufacture had had a number stolen from his Dublin office by the IRA. He fired his secretary in the belief that she had been the inside woman for the robbery, and was consequently warned to leave the country.
It was a half-silly, half-squalid affair but, with peace established, the exiled businessman applied for permission to return home. Mulcahy forwarded the request to Michael Collins, unwittingly turning a simple matter into a complicated one when Brugha, for reasons of his own, decided that Collins had erred in his assignment, and contacted Mulcahy to that effect, much to the other man’s displeasure.
“I consider the tone of your letter…is very unfortunate,” Mulcahy wrote back icily, which only enraged Brugha further in his own reply:
Before you are very much older, my friend, I shall show you that I have…little intention of taking dictation from you as to how I should reprove inefficiency or negligence on the part of yourself or the D/I [Director of Intelligence, Collins].
Mulcahy proceeded passively-aggressively by refusing to attend further staff sessions, earning his suspension by Brugha. Mulcahy was thenceforth to surrender all documents, books and other material connected to his duties. Luckily, a higher authority stepped in before things escalated any further: Éamon de Valera stood by as Brugha tearfully apologised, or at least close enough for Mulcahy to accept.
It was all rather undignified. De Valera had played peacemaker, but he also contributed his own share of drama. “Ye may mutiny if ye like, but Ireland will give me another army,” he hotly proclaimed in a gathering of the GHQ Staff when truculence towards his proposed reforms wore down his last nerve.
The Irish Plenipotentiaries had just departed for talks in London in October 1921 and, since a failure to strike a deal would probably result in renewed war, it was important to have the IRA so prepared; in de Valera’s view, this meant ensuring that the military relationship with the civilian government, which he headed, was a clearly defined subordinate one. Considering how they had been bearing the brunt of the Anglo-Irish struggle, Mulcahy and his colleagues took this implied lack of faith in their loyalty rather personally, as they did de Valera’s outburst.
“I didn’t think that there was a man in Ireland that would speak like that [to Mulcahy]”, said a white-faced Seán Russell after the contentious meeting.
Given the esteem Mulcahy was held in revolutionary circles, it came as a surprise, even a shock, when he threw in his support for the Treaty. “Dick wouldn’t do such a thing,” Mary MacSwiney insisted when she first heard, while Pax Ó Faoláin could not comprehend “how a great Irish-Irelander like Richard Mulcahy could accept a treaty that gave away six of our counties and that allowed the exercise of only limited sovereignty over the other twenty-six.”
While others were at a loss to understand, de Valera knew where to point the finger – the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and its lobbying behind the scenes:
MC [Michael Collins] had got the IRB machine working. The Dail members of the IRB were told that acceptance of the Treaty would be the quickest way to the Republic and a lot of other stuff which time alone will explode.
Or to put it more succinctly: “Curse secret societies.”
Two themes dominated Mulcahy’s career as a soldier, at least how historian Pádraig Ó Caoimh presents it: fraught relationships with civic authorities and his IRB membership, both of which continued in the Free State, to Mulcahy’s ultimate detriment.
He had only himself to blame. When allegations surfaced of an IRB presence in the upper echelons of the Free State military in April 1923, Mulcahy not only confirmed but defended this fact, praising the Brotherhood as:
…a machine that, in the first place, has pulled the country through the very difficult situation it got into, and which, in the second place, will be the home for the development of all those particular characteristics which will go to make an Irish character we may be proud of.
A ‘machine’ – both de Valera and Mulcahy referred to the Brotherhood as such but, while the former said it as an accusation, to the latter that meant opportunities to be wrought. After all, what was the spirit of the IRB but that of Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and other names so revered?
With that in mind, the IRB Constitution was rewritten to accommodate initiates within the Free State forces. While de Valera had identified Collins as the prime mover behind the fraternity, now it was Mulcahy taking the lead, meeting with his fellow government minister, Kevin O’Higgins, on how best to frame the new order. Going by the minutes of their conversation, O’Higgins, while not opposed per se to the IRB, had reservations about its long-term effects, something Mulcahy refused to even considering as a possibility:
O’Higgins: Urged the very great danger of persons being put into pivotal positions, purely because of belonging to certain organisations; that it would lead to serious abuses, and serious weaknesses.
Mulcahy: That it would never happen and that it was absurd to think that it ever would.
O’Higgins: Put it up that certain pivotal people at the present moment were only there because they were of the Organisation (IRB).
Mulcahy: Who else could be in their places?
O’Higgins had other concerns. If the IRB looked poised to be a separate power in the Free State, then the Army already was a law unto itself, particularly in Kerry, where the bitterness of civil war was starkly demonstrated in a string of ugly incidents. As the military authority, Paddy O’Daly, had the most to answer, yet Mulcahy defended him every step of the way.
“In the case of any Officer who has given distinguished service of lasting benefit to his Country,” Mulcahy replied when questioned, “I was not prepared lightly, and on no evidence, to place him in the degrading position of answering to a low charge.”
Murdering POWs by tying them to landmines or dragging women out of their homes for a lashing was apparently what amounted to a ‘low charge’ in Mulcahy’s esteem. O’Daly had been one of his few reliable soldiers during the Civil War, and Mulcahy was clearly not one to forget loyal service, but public priorities had changed by the time of the Army Inquiry in March 1923, and his decision to stand by his subordinates was now seen as embarrassingly indulgent, if not alarmingly immoral.
Perhaps if Mulcahy had had a more congenial relationship with his civilian colleagues, he might have emerged from the inquiry with his standing intact. But he had grown too used to marching to the beat of his own drum without a thought for the rest of the band.
Earlier, in the midst of the Civil War in September 1922, he had taken the liberty of covertly meeting with de Valera in the hope of a peaceful solution. A worthy effort, perhaps, if unsuccessful, but that liberty was not his to take. The Cabinet had already ruled that anything short of unconditional surrender on the part of the Anti-Treatyites was unacceptable. Mulcahy had in effect gone behind their collective backs, leading to an excruciatingly awkward session when he confessed, as Ernest Blythe described:
When he had finished there was a dead silence for what seemed like minutes. All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation. In view of the state of affairs generally, and in view of the way in which the Government was cut off from the Army, none of us felt that we could make that demand.
When the silence had lasted so long that the Cabinet meeting seemed on the point of becoming rather like a Quaker prayer meeting, Mr. Cosgrave said. “That’s all,” got up and left his chair, and all of us left the room without a single comment on General Mulcahy’s disclosure.
Mulcahy at least kept his rank – for the moment. Irony abounded: he had risked all in parlaying with an enemy he had had little time for even when allies. Where de Valera failed in bringing the headstrong general to heel, the Army Inquiry succeeded with a housecleaning of the military high command. Mulcahy was among those forced to resign, a humiliating slap in the face for a man who had just succeeded in two back-to-back wars.
Retracing such a journey has clearly been a labour of love for Ó Caoimh, whose bibliography is an exhaustive list of archival memorandum, personal reminisces and subsequent historiography, allowing us an unrivalled peak into Mulcahy’s thoughts. Note ‘thoughts’, not ‘feelings’, which are scant: the subject might as well be carved from a block of wood for all the emotion on display, save for the occasional slip of annoyance at whichever politico was trying to boss him around.
“Socially distant, politically complex and militarily circumspect” is how Mulcahy, while in his mid-thirties, is summed up. One senses this is a biography that introverted man would have approved of: long on the public, short on personal, with details of his private life reserved for the footnotes. State-building requires focus, after all, and Ó Caoimh’s work goes a long way in reminding us of the central role Mulcahy played in the Irish one’s formative years. Readers beware, however, of the sickly stink of suspicion wafting from almost every page.
Is it better to be feared or loved, asked the wise Italian. Both are nice but, if one had to choose, fear should be prized over love, for men are fickle in their affections, while everyone thinks twice when the consequences are sufficiently dire. Machiavelli may have passed a harsh judgement on human nature, but the dilemma he presented was one the nascent Free State was forced to confront upon the shootings of Séan Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille on the 7th December 1922, resulting in the death of the former and the wounding of the latter.
Both were TDs in the Dáil, with Ó Máille being no less its Deputy Speaker, and yet their ambush had been committed in broad daylight on a public street as part of a “carefully laid plan to annihilate this government,” announced Eoin MacNeill to the Dáil. It was a strong statement but, then, the Executive Council of the government in question, to which MacNeill belonged, was in a defensive mood, having just ordered the deaths of four imprisoned men in response.
Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett had been woken in their cells, briskly informed of their impending sentence and then taken out into the yard of Mountjoy Prison where a firing-squad did the rest. All four had been part of an armed campaign against the Free State but, while war is hell, “from a legal perspective,” writes historian Séan Enright:
…these men were executed without trial for acts committed by others…The new state was barely two days old and the Constitution guaranteed life, liberty, freedom of conscience and due process or at least trial by military court.
Such requirements the Executive Council had manifestly failed to uphold. Nonetheless, the reprisals had their desired result. Save for a couple of ineffectual pot-shots, there were no further assassination attempts on TDs of the Free State. “Is there no alternative?” Kevin O’Higgins had asked when the Council met to sign off on the executions. ‘No’ had been the answer.
Still, these four executions were the exception, not the rule, for the Free State was generally careful in ensuring that its death penalties fitted within the framework of the law. Which law, however, was a tricky question in itself.
Until the Irish Free State came officially into being on the 6th December 1922, the Provisional Government was obliged to rely on British legislation to fill the legal gap – except when that would be inconvenient, such as Count Plunkett bringing forward a claim of habeas corpus on behalf of his son, who was one of the anti-Treaty prisoners taken at the Four Courts in July 1922.
Judge Diarmuid Crowley deemed it satisfactory and issued a writ which threatened to set a precedence for every POW to be set free. Instead, Crowley found himself arrested and detained at Wellington Barracks, in a cell next to one where another prisoner was being subjected to, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation’.
This was not the end of habeas corpus as a legal recourse: solicitors for Erskine Childers attempted it in a bid to avert his imminent execution, but Sir Charles O’Connor, as Master of the Rolls, simply brushed it aside on the grounds of the common good. “Suprema lex, salus populi must be the guiding principle when the civil law has failed,” Sir Charles ruled:
Force then becomes the only remedy, and to those whom the task is committed must be the sole judge of how it should be exercised…the salvation of the country depends upon it.
Childers had no one to blame but himself, Sir Charles continued, with his recourse to civil law being hypocritical given how such “jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war which he himself has helped to procure.” Sir Charles did not speak lightly; after all, the hearing was being held in the King’s Inns because the usual site of the Four Courts lay in ruins thanks to the war in question.
Ironically, Sir Charles had defeated an earlier regime by use of habeas corpus when, shortly after the Truce of 1921, he issued such a writ on behalf of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner due to be shot under British martial law. When this was refused, Sir Charles went further and issued another writ, this time for the arrest of the army generals accountable.
The military gave way and released the prisoner, a precedence that looked to unravel its counter-insurgency strategy should war resume. The Irish Provisional Government was clearly not going to risk the same thing happening on its watch, as Sir Charles shrewdly – if perhaps cynically – understood. He was an old legal face in a new system playing by new rules.
The Free State was thus cherry-picking which laws were opportune to apply while ignoring the rest. As always, cruel necessity was its defence. When presenting to the Dáil the case for establishing military courts with the power of life and death over POWs, Richard Mulcahy pointed to a couple of incidents where his soldiers had shot anti-Treaty captives out of hand.
Legalise, was his argument, for it is going to happen anyway in one form or another.
Much of this will be familiar to historians of the period, but Enright shines a torch on the legal aspects, making his readers see the topic in a new light: more than just another war but the struggle by one side to establish itself as the rule of law, by using the rule of law, even if it meant twisting the rules and discarding the law at will. How this will be addressed in the forthcoming centenary remains to be seen but, in any case, it was by these means that the Free State triumphed, albeit bloodily, not to say questionably as even the victors were aware.
The challenges of researching the conflict, as Enright observes, includes the paucity of reliable sources, due in no small part to the burning of sensitive documents just before Fianna Fáil took office in 1932. Succeeding in the Civil War did not prevent its winners from being voted out almost a decade later in favour of the losers, one of the many ironies of the times and which Machiavelli might have appreciated. Men, after all, are fickle in their affections.
The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.
“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.
“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”
Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:
Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.
You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.
By Order of the Army Executive.
With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.
As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.
But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:
Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.
Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.
“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”
Allegiances Remade and Broken
Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.
“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”
The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.
“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:
That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.
Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.
Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.
This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”
A Trial of Strength
Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:
How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.
As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.
Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:
In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.
Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”
The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”
Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”
The Power of the Sledge
Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.
The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.
Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.
The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.
“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”
The Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:
The sledge is not all-powerful.
On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.
Today we offer our readers seven.
The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.
Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.
The country has taken the measure of the sledges.
Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.
But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?
Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?
What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?
A Tremendous Responsibility
To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:
…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.
The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.
Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.
O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.
Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”
It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.
The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.
The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.
In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:
The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
A general election with an aim towards:
A government with the confidence of the whole country.
In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.
Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:
…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.
As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:
…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.
Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:
…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.
But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.
From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”
Who’s in Charge?
O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.
As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.
When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.
This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:
It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.
Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.
On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.
Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.
Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.
Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.
“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.
It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.
Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.
Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.
“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.
Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.
“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.
The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.
“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”
Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.
“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.
Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:
The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.
In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.
By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.
A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.
Tweaking the Lion’s Tail
Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.
As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.
While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.
To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.
Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:
Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.
It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.
An Irish Comic Opera
Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:
It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.
O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.
Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:
Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.
O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.
Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.
“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”
To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”
A Fanatic’s Spirituality
O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.
O’Connor was a busy man and could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.
In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:
Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.
Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.
As for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.
In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.
“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”
“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.
Within forty-eight hours, it was over.
A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:
Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.
Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:
The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.
O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.
However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:
The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.
If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.
“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”
Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.
“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.
For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”
Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.
For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.
If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”
O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.
“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.
The Men Behind the Walls
O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.
“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.
That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.
“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”
It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.
O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:
…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.
This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”
The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.
Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.
‘The Quicklime on their Boots’
O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.
Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.
MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.
O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.
“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.
As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.
No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.
“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”
MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”
“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”
Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.
O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.
That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.
No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:
A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:
…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”
No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 24
Joseph Lawless was a busy man in his workshop at 198 Parnell Street, Dublin, where he churned out bombs for use by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The process was a simple one: a steel pipe sawn off to four inches and then sealed at either end, save for a hole drilled in one in which to insert the fuse. But this was too crude a method for Lawless’ exacting standards and so he argued to colleagues that his allocated funds would be better spent renovating the old foundry in the basement. With that, a more sophisticated type of explosive could be produced.
His lobbying was successful enough for a visit to the workshop from Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the O/C and the Quartermaster of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively. The two officers listened as Lawless expounded on his proposal. While interested, McKee remained noncommittal, telling Lawless that he would send over Rory O’Connor, the Director of Engineering in the IRA GHQ, for a second opinion on the idea’s feasibility.
The man in question called in at the workshop a day or so later. Lawless’ first impression was not a promising one:
He struck me as peculiarly solemn and unsmiling, one might say lugubrious, and did not appear to listen to what I said when I began to explain the details of what I considered my plan for a bomb factory.
Where was the furnace? O’Connor asked Lawless while the latter was in mid-sentence. He wanted to examine it for himself.
Lawless took his graceless guest down to the basement, cautioning him that the furnace, in an unlit corner at the back, was missing the grating for its draught-pit in front. Ignoring this advice, O’Connor pressed on in the dark and, before Lawless could stop him, stumbled into the open hole, much to Lawless’ quiet amusement.
Still, no harm done save to O’Connor’s dignity and, after a few days, Lawless received word that his proposal had been approved by his Brigade superiors. O’Connor had evidently submitted a favourable report on his findings, however gauche he might have been in person.
O’Connor could have that effect on his fellow revolutionaries. Todd Andrews thought him “too forbidding a person to approach. He was saturnine in appearance, very dark-skinned, always in deep thought, brooding and worried. He did not look a healthy man.” But to Piaras Béaslaí, while he conceded that O’Connor’s “manner was not attractive to strangers…those who were intimate with him found him to be a very pleasant and sociable companion.”
Another one close enough to uncover O’Connor’s inner charm was David Neligan. “He was good company, a great talker, very cheerful,” Neligan remembered. Though he shared O’Connor’s political convictions, his role in the Irish struggle was a very different one: as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), Neligan had access to confidential information in Dublin Castle, which he leaked to his IRA contacts. He was walking through St Stephen’s Green with a DMP co-worker when the latter indicated a short, middle-aged man, with a face thin to the point of haggard, sitting nearby on a park bench.
“See him, Dave?” said the policeman. “He is a prominent Sinn Feiner. If he is there tomorrow, we’ll have him pulled.”
Having recognised O’Connor, Neligan made sure to pass on a warning, much to O’Connor’s gratitude. Though O’Connor had dodged arrest, Neligan was to see him in peril again, this time in the yard of Dublin Castle, being interrogated by a British intelligence officer. Neligan tried arguing that the suspect was merely a harmless eccentric but to no avail.
“I’m told,” said the officer, “that he is a prominent Shinner.”
Which was true enough, and O’Connor was forwarded to Arbour Hill to join the other POWs there, including Lawless, who had likewise been collared. As if that was not bad enough. Lawless learnt the day after his apprehension, in December 1920, about the discovery of his Parnell Street workshop and the bomb-factory he had worked so hard to set up.
It was not the end of the war, of course, nor of Lawless’ part in it, and he handled the smuggling of letters in and out of Arbour Hill, thanks to bribed wardens. Through this, O’Connor was able to keep in contact with the rest of the revolutionary leadership, though there was something about O’Connor that Lawless found unsettling.
According to Lawless, it was an opinion shared by a number of the other inmates:
Rory was a solemn, unsmiling egotistical sort of person whom we looked upon as a little mad and did not take him too seriously.
At least the authority of Con O’Donovan helped keep things steady. As the elected commandant of the prisoners, O’Donovan liaised with the Arbour Hill governor and ensured the maintenance of discipline among the inmates. Near the end of January 1921, O’Donovan was transferred to Ballykinlar Camp, an internment centre set up to manage the overflow of captives taken by the Crown forces as the war intensified.
O’Donovan’s absence created a vacancy for the role of prison commandant, which Lawless was voted in to fill. Not all were pleased by this choice, however, as Lawless recalled:
The other candidate for the appointment was Rory O’Connor, who mooted around the claim that as a member of the IRA General Staff he was the senior officer in the prison. However, as I have already mentioned, the general body of prisoners did not quite trust Rory’s mental balance.
To smooth things over, Lawless pointed out to O’Connor that it was best for him not to gain too much prominence and instead remain anonymous among the mass of detainees. Despite his capture, O’Connor’s identity and true importance was unknown to his captors, who registered him under the assumed name he had provided.
Prison Pump Politics
O’Connor made no more complaints over who was what, though Lawless did not think he was entirely conciliated. In early March 1921, the inmates were paraded in the main hall, where the names of those due to be moved to the Curragh, Co. Kildare, were read out, around one hundred and fifty, which amounted to half their number.
Lawless and O’Connor were among those set to leave. While they waited, listening to the hum of the vehicles outside that were to be their transport, O’Connor sidled up to Lawless and asked in a whisper if he had any plans to escape along the way. To O’Connor’s displeasure, Lawless told him no, not for the moment, since they were sure to be heavily guarded, unless an opportunity happened to appear.
This wait-and-see attitude was not what O’Connor had been wanting to hear:
He then took up the heavy attitude with me and, speaking as a member of the General Staff, warned me that it was my duty as a prisoners’ commandant to organise an escape. Poor Rory was evidently still suffering from the snub to his dignity of my election as commandant against his candidature, and I regretted the necessity for a further snub when I replied that the matter rested safely in my hands.
Lawless at least refrained from the ‘snub’ of saying that he was less concerned about the journey ahead – he did not think much was likely to happen on the road – and more about O’Connor, who Lawless was sure would make another attempt at the position of commandant once they were in the Curragh. Not that Lawless desired leadership and its responsibilities but he wanted O’Connor in control even less.
Once he separated himself from O’Connor, he went to Peadar McMahon, a friend of his, and persuaded him to put himself forward for the role once they reached the Curragh. McMahon reluctantly agreed to do so but only on condition that Lawless would help shoulder the burden.
“All this may sound a bit like parish pump politics,” Lawless admitted when composing his account for posterity. Eager to avoid factions, he hoped that McMahon would be a unanimous choice…anyone would do, in fact, as long as it was not O’Connor.
In that, Lawless had his way. McMahon was elected to be in charge for the duration of their stay in the Curragh, with Lawless his second-in-command as agreed. O’Connor had been outmanoeuvred, and Lawless prepared to make do as best he could to life behind the barbed wire-fences and sentry-points of the Rath Camp. Their new confinement was a circular mound, with a diameter of a hundred feet, which lay on a ridge just west of the Curragh. Rebels of a past generation had surrendered there in 1798, only for Crown forces to break the terms and massacre them.
Whether or not their captors knew of the site’s historical significance, it was a bleakly fitting place to store the latest crop of subversives. A city boy, Lawless was discomforted by the wide plains that stretched to the distant horizon whenever he looked outside his confinement, as well as awed at the British military strength on display elsewhere in the Curragh.
When peace presented itself in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Lawless seized the chance. His acceptance of the controversial terms put him at odds with certain individuals, though this, if anything, only confirmed to him the correctness of his decision.
“Those of us who had any previous knowledge of men like Rory O’Connor and de Valera were not impressed by their pose of pure-souled patriotism,” Lawless wrote. “I had had a slight experience of Rory O’Connor in Arbour Hill and the Rath Camp and put him down as a crank.”
Crank or not, and whatever else could be said about him, O’Connor was most certainly not one to sit back and do nothing. Deprived of one goal, he soon found another.
Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at the Rath Camp was David E. Ryan of the Dublin Brigade. “The morning was bitterly cold and a drive of 30 miles was far from pleasant,” as he described the journey in a convoy of ten lorries, with two armoured cars at either end and a pair of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Clearly, the British authorities were taking no chances.
The passengers in Ryan’s transport passed the time by singing patriotic Irish songs, along with a parody of Rule Britannia, much to the amusement of the soldiers guarding them, if only because it infuriated their officer in charge. But ribaldry could only go so far in maintaining morale, and it was a tired and famished group who reached the Curragh, with little in the way of comfort to look forward to:
For the first week, on account of our changed addresses, we received none of the usual parcels from our friends outside, and to say that we were often hungry during that week would be putting it mildly.
Little wonder, then, that Ryan’s thoughts turned to the means of getting out and soon.
For assistance, he turned to O’Connor, who he recognised, despite the fake name the other man went by. Side-lined O’Connor may have been over the prison hierarchy, but his record and standing still inspired respect, at least in Ryan: “He had often planned escapes for others. Now he was to have the pleasure of planning his own.”
The esteem went both ways when Ryan said he would reveal his scheme only on condition of being one of its beneficiaries. “That’s the spirit,” O’Connor replied. “You can do more outside than here. There are too many locked up.”
And so Ryan explained how he had befriended Jerry Gaffney, a fellow IRA member who, while working as a carpenter on the premises – his true loyalty unbeknownst to his employers – had already helped to smuggle out some letters for Ryan. Though O’Connor was at first uncertain as to how far this stranger could be trusted, Ryan vouched for him, and so it was arranged for the three of them to meet the next day in one of the disused huts in the camp.
After reviewing their options, it was assessed that, in the knowledge that the wardens were tightening security, three men at most could make the attempt. Two would obviously be O’Connor and Ryan, as per their deal, but when the latter approached a prospective candidate for the third, the man – who Ryan refrained from naming in his account – declined on account of ill health. With time being of the essence, Ryan and O’Connor decided to proceed anyway with just the pair of them.
The plan was for Gaffney to procure workmen’s tools and clothing, to be hidden in the same hut until O’Connor and Ryan could walk out, so disguised, amongst the actual workmen at the end of a shift at 5:30 pm. That was until, with two hours to go, O’Connor abruptly cancelled:
The tone of his remark did not invite questions and he went away hurriedly, but knowing Rory well I knew that he had some good reason for calling it off.
The reason, as O’Connor later explained to Ryan, was that if they absconded in the afternoon, the 6:30 roll-call would expose the two missing names. While such discovery was inevitable, O’Connor wanted to put as much distance between them and their jailers beforehand. And so it was agreed to go ahead the next day, at 12:30, which would give their absence almost the whole day of going unnoticed – that is, if all went as it should.
Ryan began having his doubts when he and O’Connor approached the exit. They had donned the dungarees and equipment, and pulled their caps low over faces smeared with dust as a finishing touch, but still Ryan fretted. The tension grew almost unbearable for him:
As we approached the gate I could feel my heart beating quickly, my breathing became jerky and my senses began to weaken.
He kept himself together in time to present his pass to the soldier on duty who, to his silent horror, knew him already as an inmate. Nonetheless, after the longest of pauses, the guard waved him through, whether because the dirt and overalls were a sufficient disguise or, if he recognised Ryan, due to natural human sympathy.
Once out of earshot, O’Connor exulted: “Thank God, they have been caught napping again.”
The fugitives cut through the fields towards Kildare Railway Station, where they bought two tickets, paying a little extra for returns with the money Gaffney had provided. When the authorities asked around for any suspicious duos who might have passed, who would think of the pair who were apparently planning to come back?
After stopping at Lucan, they were walking towards the trams when a lorry-load of Auxiliaries drove down the street towards them. Had their absence been rumbled? O’Connor feared so.
“I’m afraid it’s all up but walk on,” he told Ryan. The Auxiliaries stopped them but only to ask for directions to Newbridge, which O’Connor politely provided.
That night, with Rory I had the pleasure of meeting and being congratulated by Michael Collins, Gearóid O’Sullivan and other members of the GHQ staff, all of whom were delighted to get a first-hand account of the first escape of prisoners from an internment camp in Ireland.
The next day, in Dublin, O’Connor ran into Michael Knightly, a journalist who he had supplied with inside information about the past escapes he organised. It was a pleasant surprise for Knightly:
I had known he was a prisoner at the Curragh and I asked: “When did you get out?” Speaking in his usual slow manner, he said: “Ah, I escaped yesterday.”
David Neligan was another friend who spotted him about town, wearing a beard and clerical garb on the quays. When O’Connor appeared at an IRA gathering on the 14th March 1921, it was to great acclaim, the story of his exploit already in circulation. The celebratory mood was tinged, however, with the knowledge that six of their comrades had been executed that morning in Mounjoy. The solemnity extended to the rest of the city, where the trams stopped for the day, workers took time off and those walking the streets did so in silence.
And so the war dragged on. Exactly how it would end was undetermined: not until complete victory was achieved? Or would some sort of compromise be necessary? “If we clatther them hard enough we might get Dominion Home Rule,” said Dick McKee when asked that question, an indication that he leaned towards the latter resolution.
These opposing viewpoints were in the air, if not quite in the open, during a couple of sessions of the IRA Executive in Parnell Square. On these two occasions, Cathal Brugha, as Minister for Defence and with characteristic pugnaciousness, accused Michael Collins of communicating with Dublin Castle without authorisation. Collins denied any such impropriety, while insisting on his prerogative to accept any information that came his way, whatever its origin.
On a seemingly unrelated note, at another meeting, Collins announced his resignation as Adjutant-General, requesting instead the role of Director of Intelligence. Brugha offered no protest; if anything, he seemed pleased at this development. Perhaps he thought this would clip the wings of the uppity Corkman, for the new post was not, on the face of it, particularly important.
When they were done, O’Connor turned to the man sitting next to him and asked Richard Walsh, the representative of the Connaught IRA, for a quiet word. The two departed from Parnell Square towards Parliament Street, while Walsh mulled over what had just happened. After they reached the Royal Exchange Hotel and found themselves a drink and a quiet corner, O’Connor unburdened himself of his concerns:
Rory was very worried about what Collins’s move meant…When summing up the events of the meeting, Rory O’Connor and myself came to the conclusion that while intelligence, its organisation and efficient establishment, was very necessary, it was also very dangerous as it had a boomerang quality that could hit back in an ugly way.
If intelligence-mining thus needed to be treated with care, was Collins the one to do so? Going by Brugha’s previous remarks about links between him and Dublin Castle, both O’Connor and Walsh were thinking not, as:
The danger would always be there that Collins and his group might use the intelligence system to make contacts to start negotiations with the enemy and make certain commitments that would prove a very serious handicap when proper official negotiations would be taken in hand.
Walsh did not provide a date for this discussion but it was presumably early in the war, before talks between the British Government and the Republican underground began in earnest. Unlike Brugha, who locked horns with Collins whenever he could, O’Connor had previously shown no indication that he held anything but trust towards him; indeed, the two had cooperated on a number of the famed prison-breaks.
If Walsh’s story is accurate, while accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the factionism that would plague, and finally kill, the revolutionary movement was already incubating beneath the surface.
In a further hint of things to come, another man, Dermot O’Hegarty, walked into the hotel and saw O’Connor and Walsh together. O’Hegarty was a close ally of Collins and it is telling that, when he joined the conversation, an argument soon grew between him and O’Connor. So heated was the exchange that Walsh felt it necessary to call over some of their mutual friends before things got out of hand.
That would come later.
A Surprise Extreme
Still, even after the worse had happened, the past camaraderie could linger on. Piaras Béaslaí and O’Connor were to be mortal enemies, yet, when composing his memoirs, Béaslaí wrote of the other with respect: “He was a man of considerable ability in his particular brand of activity, and…took a leading part in the planning of the most successful achievements of the Volunteers.”
Among these deeds were the jail-breaks of 1919, of which Béaslaí was twice a beneficiary: from Mountjoy in March and then Strangeways, Manchester, in October. The bonds between brothers-in-arms, and perhaps gratitude on Béaslaí’s part, drew together the two men – and future foes – closely enough for Béaslaí to leave a detailed pen-portrait:
He was a man of education and culture who concealed a strong sense of humour under an air of gloomy solemnity. He was dark haired, of medium stature, slightly built, hollow-cheeked, and seemingly not very robust. He spoke in a deep cavernous voice.
However tight they may have been, Béaslaí was still taken aback by the direction O’Connor took when their cause came to a fork in the road. Previously, O’Connor had not seemed “very ‘extreme’ in his views,” but then, Béaslaí was not alone in misjudging him, for “the extreme line of action taken by him after the passing of the Treaty was a surprise to many who knew him well.”
It is possible that not even O’Connor initially knew which way to turn. When Collins returned to Dublin in December 1921 with the rest of the Irish Plenipotentiaries, having put pen to the paper of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the first things he did was to hold a forum of IRA luminaries, including O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Gearóid O’Sullivan, in the Mansion House. Collins could sign whatever he wanted before him, but he was not naïve enough to think that the opinions of the men with guns could be overlooked.
The conference went sufficiently well for Collins to preside over the subsequent luncheon at the Gresham Hotel. Among those present was Father Patrick J. Doyle, being on amicable terms with many of the men at the table, including O’Connor, who had joked in the past about how the priest would end up on the scaffold for his seditious acquaintances. As the party ate, Father Doyle was able to observe the demeanour of his friend:
Although Rory had voted at the Volunteer meeting against acceptance of the Treaty, he was quite reconciled to abide by the majority decision of the Volunteers in favour of it.
Far from brooding on what had happened, O’Connor appeared to be looking forward to the future:
During the lunch, he took part in an animated discussion about the formation that the new Irish Army should adopt and urged very enthusiastically the adoption of the Swiss system of formation.
And yet, as Doyle observed, “a few months later Rory was out in armed opposition to the Provisional Government.” The whole thing remained a mystery to the priest, even after the passage of time:
I have never yet met any of the Volunteer officers who took up arms in that cause who could give a coherent account of the tragic split that ensued after the acceptance of the majority decision.
From the start, however, there were warning signs. Liam Archer worked under O’Connor in the IRA Engineering Department, and they were in the latter’s office on Marlborough Street, Dublin, when word of the Treaty reached them. Archer was as shocked as anyone at the idea of an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and asked O’Connor, as they walked to Collins’ own base in the Gresham, what they were to do:
He answered without hesitation – Oh, we must work it for all its worth, then after a slight pause he added But if I could get enough to support me I would oppose it wholeheartedly.
In that, O’Connor would be true to his word.
The Soldier’s Song
Even before the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and while the delegates to that national body debated the merits of the Anglo-Irish agreement, O’Connor met with four other senior IRA officers – Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows – for a parliament of their own on Heytesbury Street. The house at number 71 had been a reliable bolt-hole during the fight with the British and now it would serve as a venue for a conspiracy – this time against their own side.
“Rory’s eyes were sombre,” O’Malley noticed. “I noticed the grey streaks in his black hair.”
While all present were of like mind that the Treaty was unacceptable, binding as it did Ireland inside the British Empire, they were less certain on where the rest of the IRA stood. O’Connor wanted to waste no further time. “They mean to enforce to Treaty, but we must organise,” he said.
He was in favour of breaking away from GHQ as soon as the Dáil debates were over, seemingly not interested in whatever the result was. O’Malley approved of this bold course of action, as did Robinson, with Lynch keeping his own counsel – the odd man out, even then – and Mellows in less of a hurry, as he assured the others that the IRA would never tolerate the Treaty anyway. That the Dáil or the public might differ in opinion did not seem to occur to anyone, at least not to the extent it was worth considering.
Mellows’ wait-and-see attitude carried the room, perhaps because no one wanted to make a definite decision, and it was agreed between them to keep in touch while seeking whatever allies that they could. “Rory’s quiet humour broke the gravity,” wrote O’Malley in his memoirs, “soon we were chatting and laughing.”
It was no great surprise, at least to O’Malley, when the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty. Éamon de Valera resigned as its president in protest, though he appealed at a meeting of military men to put politics aside for the sake of unity and peace: a ship that had already sailed, to O’Malley’s mind, and to O’Connor’s as well.
The two met again when O’Malley dropped by the other’s house in Monkstown. O’Connor greeted him at the door, happy to see him, having sent word, which O’Malley had missed, for another, more exclusive, conclave that was to take place that evening in Dublin. While waiting, they killed time by playing records on the gramophone in the front room. The last tune was The Soldier’s Song, the anthem to the revolution, except O’Connor misplaced the needle of the gramophone, which drew out the notes and distorted the lyrics; appropriately so, thought O’Malley, a sign of the mess they were all in.
Out in the Open
The pair took the tram to Grafton Street and then walked to Nelson’s Pillar, continuing on to the back of Marlborough Street where O’Connor conducted his work. More soon came, coming up the wooden steps to the main office: Liam Lynch, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire, Seán Russell and others.
The room was not well lit. We sat on chairs forming three sides of a square, which Rory’s desk completed. A prismatic compass, a map measurer and a celluloid protractor stood against the ledge of the desk. To one side of them were coloured mapping inks and small slender mapping pens. Maps hung on the wall – a large scale map of Dublin; a map of Ireland with the divisional areas inserted in red pencil.
O’Connor’s skin, O’Malley saw, looked darker than usual. The light from the windows touched his cheeks and cast the rest of his face in shadow.
Once he was made chairman, O’Connor got to the point: GHQ could not to be trusted. The IRA still stood but not for long, as O’Connor was sure it would be disbanded and replaced with tame pro-Treaty cuckoos. Already the Provisional Government was recruiting men for such a move, while those who might oppose it were confused and directionless.
With time thus of the essence, it was agreed by the men in the room, as O’Connor jotted down the minutes, for an IRA Convention to be held, the first in a long while. If the Provisional Government was to refuse one, then an independent command was to be formed at once, both as an alternative and a challenge.
Such was the mood that when Richard Mulcahy, shortly after O’Connor’s military meeting, called one of his own in the Banba Hall, Parnell Square, O’Malley attended with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat. Pro-Treaty officers sat in one half of the semi-circle of chairs, Anti-Treatyites making up the other, as if to formally announce the break.
Choosing to overlook this unfortunate placement, Mulcahy, now the Minister of Defence, announced that their forces would continue to be the Republican Army. But O’Connor was not buying it. “A name will not make it so,” he said caustically as soon as Mulcahy had finished his piece.
The meeting escalated to Collins being called a traitor, provoking the Corkman to his feet in a rage. Mulcahy defused the tension with a few quiet words – an impressive feat, considering the passions simmering in the room. In a gesture of good faith, he proposed that the Anti-Treatyites appoint two of their number to attend GHQ meetings and ensure that nothing untoward was done.
O’Connor asked for some privacy in another room to discuss this and, when there, asked the others what they thought. Most wanted to break away then and there with no further time wasted but Lynch insisted they give Mulcahy’s idea a try. As Lynch was in charge of the Cork and Kerry brigades in the First Southern Division, the largest and best-armed of the IRA blocs outside Dublin, the rest had no choice but to comply.
At least Mulcahy was open to the idea of an overdue IRA Convention. The Army had begun as an independent body, with its own procedures and policies and, for some like O’Connor, it was time to revive it as such.
Law of the Jungle
Lynch had inadvertently exposed two profound and disturbing truths. Firstly, while the Anti-Treatyites could or would no longer work with their pro-Treaty counterparts, they were scarcely more united among themselves.
The second was that, for all the lofty talk, strength was what really counted. This was quickly grasped by O’Malley, who put the lesson to the test when he returned from Dublin to where he held sway as O/C of the Second Southern Division, encompassing IRA units from Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Of the five brigades under his command, four were willing to follow his lead in resisting the Treaty, which meant, in more immediate terms, his former superiors in GHQ.
The first opportunity to make their discontent known was in Limerick in March 1922. British troops had withdrawn, as per the Treaty terms, leaving their barracks open for the taking, and O’Malley was determined that the Pro-Treatyites would not be the ones benefitting. A stand-off ensued as local IRA men from the opposing – and increasingly belligerent – factions hastened to seize and secure whatever positions they could in the city. Reinforcements came from Dublin and Clare for the Pro-Treatyites, while O’Malley was joined by Tipperary and Cork cohorts.
Not even two months had passed since the Treaty was signed and the country was already on the brink of fratricide – still, better sooner than later, in O’Malley’s view.
This was the argument he put to O’Connor when O’Malley briefly returned to Dublin, but O’Connor, having been so adamant at the start, now pulled back in the eleventh hour. There was still a chance at a bloodless resolution, he told O’Malley, as he turned down the request for aid to be sent. O’Malley and his allies were on their own in Limerick, though O’Connor, rather lamely, expressed the hope that all would work out for the best.
Things did – briefly.
Negotiations in Limerick led to a face-saving agreement for both sides to back down with honour intact, proof that the split was reversible and conflict not inevitable. That is, until later that month, on the 22nd March, when Mulcahy announced that any IRA convention, such as the one set to take place in four days’ time on the 26th – which he had been previously agreeable towards – was “contrary to the orders of the General Headquarters staff, and will be sectional in character.” Any officer in attendance could consider themselves stripped of rank.
For those who had distrusted Mulcahy and the rest of the Provisional Government from the start, this was all the vindication they needed. Just after Mulcahy’s proscription, on that same evening, Irish reporters, as well as ones in Dublin on behalf of British and American newspapers, received an invitation to a press conference in Suffolk Street.
As the Republican Party had its offices there, the pressmen who accepted might have expected the presence of someone like Éamon de Valera – no longer the President of the Republic, but still the most recognised politician in the anti-Treaty ranks. Instead, in walked a relative stranger who took his place at the large table in the centre of the room before the assembled newshounds.
Man: Gentlemen, I understand you want to know something about army matters.
Journalist: Who are you?
Man: I am Roderic O’Connor, Director of Engineering, General Headquarters.
Another journalist: Do you represent GHQ?
O’Connor: I do not represent GHQ. I represent 80 per cent of the IRA.
Not Peace But a Sword
In regards to the remaining 20 per cent, O’Connor said, when asked further, he hoped in time to win over 19 per cent. “Dáil Éireann,” he continued:
…has done an act which has no moral right to do. The Volunteers are not going into the British Empire, and stand for liberty.
This defiance on O’Connor’s part, and that of the 80 percent of the Army if he spoke true, had been some time in the making, as O’Connor went on to explain.
While the Treaty, the immoral act O’Connor had spoken of, was being debated at the start of the year, IRA officers from the South and the West of the country had come to him and Liam Mellows to say how badly they felt let down. To right this wrong, an IRA convention was set to be held four days hence, on the 26th March, and though the Provisional Government had banned it, the event would go ahead anyway.
Which was only proper, considering how:
The Army feels that the Dáil has let down the Republic and has created a dilemma for the Army and the country. The Army feels it must right itself. It has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, whilst giving its allegiance also to the Dáil.
Such a choice was no choice at all, in O’Connor’s strident view. He was, however, hazier on a number of questions put to him.
Journalist: Take it that the Irish people vote 80 per cent, or more, in favour of the policy adopted by the Dáil, will the attitude of the 80 per cent of the Army whom you claim to represent be the same towards them as you say it is now towards the Dáil?
O’Connor: I cannot answer for the Army on that. That will be a question for the new Executive which will be set up next week.
Journalist: Is the army going to obey Mr de Valera or the people, through those they put in control?
O’Connor: President de Valera asked that the army obey the existing GHQ, but the army for which I speak cannot, because the Minister of Defence has broken his agreement.
As for how Mulcahy, the Minister in question, had done so, O’Connor explained that it was by asking IRA members to join an alternative army, one set up for the purpose of keeping Ireland inside the British Empire. Mulcahy might deny it, but O’Connor held that it was true all the same. As for the allegiance of the IRA, that answer was obvious:
The Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.
The Dáil was certainly not such a government, at least not how O’Connor saw it. Certainly, if the Dáil was in fact the Government, then the IRA was presently in revolt against it. O’Connor’s tone was matter-of-fact, as it was when questioned further on the obvious consequences of soldiers making their own decisions.
Journalist: Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then?
O’Connor: You can take it that way if you like.
Journalist: Then the convention won’t make for peace?
O’Connor: It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 131
 Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), pp. 79, 127
 Neligan, p. 127 ; O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 131
 University College Dublin Archives, Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)
Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)
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)
Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.
As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:
I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.
As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:
Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.
For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.
This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).
An Extremist Speaks
Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:
Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.
Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.
Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.
Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.
‘Red with Anger’
For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.
When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”
“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.
Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.
Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.
Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.
That Gang of Mine
Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”
The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?
Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.
Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.
He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”
Only One Army
When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.
Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.
Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.
By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.
As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”
He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.
On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”
The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.
Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.
The Army of the Republic
Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:
At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.
The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.
Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.
“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.
“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.
As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”
This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”
For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.
Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.
Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.
Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.
The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.
The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.
After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.
The First Glorious Day
Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.
“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”
Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!
This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.
“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.
Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”
After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.
Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.
As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.
After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”
When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”
In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:
On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.
No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.
And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.
The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.
He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”
Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.
Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:
Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.
Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.
I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.
The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.
Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”
That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.
He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:
The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.
The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.
This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.
As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.
In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.
The West Awakens
The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:
As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.
That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.
Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.
A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.
“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.
The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.
Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:
Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.
Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:
As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.
And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.
The Sligo Situation
The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.
Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.
Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.
Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.
It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.
Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.
Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.
Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.
There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.
Success in Sligo
This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.
As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?
After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.
He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.
As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.
The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.
A Death in Athlone
The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.
“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.
“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.
Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.
Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.
This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.
Securing the Midlands
Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.
While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.
When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.
At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.
Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.
Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.
Squabbles in the Dáil
Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.
The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.
But not all agreed on the solution.
Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:
At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.
Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:
De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.
Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.
De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.
As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”
An Impossible Situation
Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”
Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.
All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.
At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.
It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.
Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.
Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”
At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.
Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.
She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.
In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”
The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.
The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.
In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:
They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.
At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.
As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:
I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.
Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.
A Longford Wedding
Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.
Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.
Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.
But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.
Or perhaps not.
A Return to Sligo
Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.
Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.
Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.
It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.
Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p. 23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11
Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)
Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office )
Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Shortly after 8 pm on the 12th January 1923, John C. Dinneen answered the door to his residence on Morehampton Road and found himself confronted by six youths, who seized and dragged him out, breaking the little finger of his right hand in the struggle. When he plaintively asked if he could at least put on his boots instead of the slippers he had, he was refused. The pistols brandished in his face deterred any further resistance – as they did to a couple of passers-by about to come to the rescue – and Dinneen was bundled into the waiting motorcar and driven away.
Blindfolded, Dinneen was closely questioned for over half an hour, at the end of which he was able to convince his captors that he was in fact John Dineen the insurance company official and not John Dineen the TD for East and North-East Cork. The kidnappers apologised for their error, explaining that they had been hoping to hold the other man in case any punishment was exacted on Ernest O’Malley, an imprisoned comrade of theirs.
The wrong Dinneen was allowed out of the car and left on the pavement, “somewhat shaken as a result of this trying experience,” as the Irish Times reported with masterly understatement.
‘His Exacting Adventure’
Dinneen was not the only kidnap victim that night, or even that same hour. Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a member of the newly-formed Senate, was relaxing in his bath when his maid alerted him to the presence of four strangers on his doorstep – or, rather, right outside his bathroom, as the newcomers had followed the woman upstairs. Two remained on the stairs while the other pair entered the bathroom, where they ‘asked’ Gogarty to come along with them, his medical services purportedly needed for an injured friend of theirs.
Gogarty was not naïve enough either to believe them or think he had a choice. As with Dinneen, experiencing his own abduction at the same time, Gogarty was blindfolded and driven away. Catching a glimpse of his surroundings as the car stopped at a house by a river, the senator guessed he was in the Island Bridge district, next to the Liffey, an area he knew well.
He bided his time while under guard in the house. After requesting a breath of fresh air, he was led out to the yard by one of his captors. Steeling his nerves, Gogarty asked his unwanted companion to hold his heavy coat when he took it off. When the latter obliged by stretching out his hand, a revolver held in the other, Gogarty flung the coat over his head.
He plunged into the swollen Liffey, swimming with the icy current before dragging himself onto the bank with the aid of some overhanging bushes. Once again, the Irish Times knew exactly how to treat a terrifying ordeal with a light touch: “With the exception of some slight bruises about the head and face, Dr Gogarty was little the worse for his exciting adventure.”
His daring escape would become the subject of a number of comic verses. As a final indignity, Gogarty – as sardonically noted by Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Local Government – missed the chance to claim them as his own until too late.
Terrorism and its Countering
As the name-dropping of O’Malley would indicate, the kidnappers had been no common or garden-variety criminals. Nor had their victims been selected at random. Since November 1922, O’Malley – Assistant Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as O/C to its Northern and Eastern Division Commands – had been held in Mountjoy Prison following his capture in Dublin.
He had not been taken easily, going down in a blaze of glory and gunshots which had severely wounded him and killed a Free State soldier, but gone down he had all the same. Now he was facing a court-martial, the end result of which could only be the firing squad. If so, he would not be the first IRA prisoner to be put to death.
Ever since September 1922, when the Government had passed its Public Safety Bill – or the ‘Murder Bill’ as its intended victims dubbed it – the number of executions had grown from a trickle to a grimly steady number. Even notable names and famous figures from the war against Britain, such as Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, were not safe, both being executed in December 1922.
Such a measure was controversial even among the Government’s supporters but its ministers remained unapologetic. “Once civil war is started, all ordinary rules must go by the board,” was Blythe’s verdict. When threatened, the duty of the state, as he saw it, was “to supply sufficient counter-terror to neutralise the terror which was being used against us.”
On the other side, Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, was of the same opinion, the difference being that, as he saw it, it was the Anti-Treatyites who were using counter-terrorism against the sort used first by the Free State. He had taken to heart the danger O’Malley was in, as he told Éamon de Valera on the 10th January: “We are doing our utmost to take hostages to be dealt with if [O’Malley] is executed.”
To Lynch, he was merely fighting fire with fire: “We will have to deal with all enemy officials and supporters as traitors if this execution takes place. They mean to wipe out all the leaders on our side, so we had better meet the situation definitely.”
In line with this hard-edged policy, he wrote to Frank Henderson, the O/C of the Dublin Brigade. Tersely and crisply, Lynch instructed him that:
You will leave nothing undone to take three persons who are active supporters of MURDER BILL, prominent enemy officials or active supporters of FREE STATE as hostages. You will ensue they are persons we can execute, if enemy murder [O’Malley].
For Lynch, ruthlessness had come slowly, almost grudgingly. On the 12th September 1922, he had, while decrying the on-the-spot killings of defenceless IRA members, instructed against retaliations on “unarmed Officers or Soldiers of enemy forces.”
Three months later, he was issuing ‘Operation Order No. 14’, which called for “three enemy officers to be arrested and imprisoned in each Brigade area”, to be killed in turn for every IRA prisoner executed. By January, his Adjutant General, Con Moloney, was circulating a list of twenty-two Free State senators whose homes were to be destroyed, and themselves targeted, man for man, in the event of further POW death sentences.
Even some in the anti-Treaty command were troubled at this escalation, such as de Valera. As President of the Irish Republic, with Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic, the two leaders were, in theory, partners, each responsible for their own sphere, de Valera the political and Lynch the military. But the President felt it necessary to warn Lynch that his policy “of an eye for an eye is not going to win the people to us, and without the people we can never win.”
Lynch was unmoved. “We must adopt severe measures or else chuck it at once,” he replied, stressing that, up to now, the Anti-Treatyites had been blameless: “IRA in this war as in the last wish to fight with clean hands.” It was the enemy who “has outraged all rules of warfare” and were consequently responsible for everything that ensued.
Meanwhile, inside the hospital wing of Mountjoy Prison, O’Malley himself was taking a resigned view of his predicament. When asked by a visiting Free State officer as to whether he required legal assistance with his trial-to-come, O’Malley replied that, as a soldier, he had done nothing but fight and kill the enemies of his nation and would do so again. No defence on his part was necessary, especially not for a trial with a foregone conclusion.
The only hope for a reprieve was for the prison doctor to declare him unfit for trial due to his still-healing wounds. His frail condition did concern O’Malley greatly, as he feared collapsing “at the trial through weakness, and the enemy may state I collapsed through funk.”
Communications between him and Lynch were possible through secret messages smuggled in and out of Mountjoy. Lynch reassured his captive colleague that: “I have great hopes that as a result of our action that your life will be spared as that of many others. I assure you nothing will be left be undone.”
That the need for such actions had come about in the first place was a source of great indignation to Lynch: “It is outrageous to bring you to trial under your present physical condition but they have done such barbarous acts that they may stop at nothing.”
The IRA finally bagged a catch on the 30th January when John Bagwell, a Senator in the Free State as well as Manager of the Great Northern Railway, was led away at gunpoint while walking home to Howth. The Free State authorities had been silent on the previous abduction attempts on Dineen and Gogarty but now that one had succeeded, Major-General Dan Hogan hastened to remove all doubt as to the consequences:
NOW WARNING is hereby Given that, in the event of the said Senator John Bagwell not being set, unharmed, at liberty, and permitted to return to his own home, within 48 hours of the date and hour of this Proclamation, Punitive Action will be taken against several associates in this conspiracy, now in custody and otherwise.
Published in the newspapers, this notice, with its undercurrent of menace, could scarcely be missed. Hogan underlined his intentions by gathering into Mountjoy about forty of the most prominent IRA prisoners. If anything happened to Bagwell, so said the unspoken threat, these would be first to feel the promised punitive action.
Punishment as Deserved
Lynch strove to be equally pugnacious. A letter of his own to the press, signed on the 1st February, a day after Hogan’s proclamation, warned that:
We hereby give notice that we shall not give up our hostages, and if the threatened action be taken we shall hold every member of the said Junta, and its so-called Parliament, Senate and other House, and all their executives, responsible and shall certainly visit them with the punishment they deserve.
This deadly game of brinkmanship was bloodlessly broken when Bagwell reappeared at the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Kept in a farmhouse, he had waited until the morning of the 6th February, when he had returned to his room after breakfast while his captors were busy eating theirs, carefully opening a window to climb out.
A cross-country runner, he was soon able to put some distance between him and his prison. After several miles of countryside, he chanced the highway and flagged down a motorist who drove him the rest of the way to Dublin. He departed for London the next day.
“It was stated that the Senator’s visit was strictly unofficial,” read the Irish Times, “and that for obvious reasons, he did not desire his whereabouts to be known.”
The Personal Touch
The campaign against Free State personnel continued, such as when Dr George Sigerson, the acting chairman for the Senate, resigned in early February 1923 after receiving a letter that threatened to burn his home down. Faced with such desertions, the Government hastened to stem the exodus and keep its representatives on board – and in line. Sometimes the personal touch was enough, such as when another senator was dissuaded from following Sigerson in resigning after a friendly heart-to-heart with Blythe.
Frank Bulfin was not treated quite so amiably. A group of three men – one of them being Joe O’Reilly, a former gunman in Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ – tracked down Bulfin after the TD for Leix-Offaly privately expressed his intentions to step down from his seat. According to Blythe, Buflin plaintively asked the trio if he was under arrest. They told him he was not, although the bulges in their coats that hinted at the revolvers beneath did nothing to reassure the TD. Nor did the following:
They told him it would be advisable for him to come to town. Bulfin thereupon entered to motor with them; and somewhere along the road they performed a charade, which certainly shook him.
They stopped the car and one of them proposed that they “shoot the oul’ bastard and have no more trouble with him”. Another agreed that it would be the simplest procedure, while a third, ostensibly more cautious, argued that Cosgrave would be so annoyed with them that they would be in endless trouble.
After what appeared to be a long wrangle, the fellow who was against such bloodshed seemingly succeeded in restraining the others, and Bulfin was put back in the motor car and brought to town.
By the time Bulfin was brought before President W.T. Cosgrave, Bulfin had obligingly changed his mind about quitting. “We had no other incidents of the kind,” Blythe noted coolly. “I suppose Frank’s story got round amongst the T.D.’s.”
Both sides were displaying a penchant for intimidation. The main difference was that the Pro-Treatyites proved better at it. No further kidnappings were attempted after Bagwell. In light of Hogan’s threats, it can be speculated as to whether the senator was allowed to abscond in order to avert the promised ‘punitive actions’ without a complete loss of face. In the test of wills, with hostages used like human poker chips, the IRA had crapped out.
As it turned out, O’Malley would never be declared fit for trial, thus saved from a court-martial and an almost certain firing squad. But, even under the shadow of death, he never lost his composure, maintaining that in the big picture, he and his fellow POWs no longer mattered: “We are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” He was more concerned that others might “take the line of least resistance and surrender.”
Because not all of the imprisoned IRA officers had been as sanguine as O’Malley or as certain as Lynch that victory remained forthcoming. Breaking ranks, Liam Deasy had taken a step that not only forced the Anti-Treatyites to revaluate their chances but shook Lynch on a very personal level.
On the 9th February, under the headline REMARKABLE PEACE PROPOSALS, the Irish Times told of how Liam Deasy, the IRA Deputy Chief of Staff – having been arrested on the 18th January near Cahir, Co. Tipperary, and sentenced to death seven days later – had put his name to the following document.
I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –
I accept, and I will aid immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as requested by General Mulcahy.
(Signed) Liam Deasy
Accompanying this bombshell was a longer and more personal statement from Deasy to explain his decision. His calls for a surrender was not based on the fear of defeat, he wrote; indeed, Deasy insisted that the Anti-Treatyites could continue their military campaign for years. But so could the Free State and, with the Government policy of executions, the conflict was descending into “a vendetta, the development of which would bring family against family rather than soldier against soldier.”
He had been dwelling on this sordid situation for some time and had “decided that the interests of freedom would not be best served by continuation of hostilities, and was prepared to advocate a cessation on defined lines when prevented by my arrest.”
Remarkable Peace Proposals
Despite such stated doubts, Deasy strove to present a picture of a man very much unbroken. He blamed the coarsening of the conflict solely on the Free State in its treatment of POWs. While admitting that his action might appear inconsistent with his past gung-ho behaviour, he could “only trust that comrades with whom I have worked in the past will understand the motives which influenced this action of mine.”
Deasy concluded with a rallying cry for the future and the hope that things would work themselves out:
To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.
Regardless, one critical fact could not be disputed: a senior officer in the IRA had publicly collapsed, to use a word of O’Malley’s, through ‘funk’.
Others picked up on Deasy’s example. A signed statement from twelve prisoners held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to meet with their commanders still at liberty and discuss a possible end to hostilities. Sensing weakness, the Government offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty – signed by its Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – to enemy combatants on condition of them surrendering with their weapons on or before the 18th February.
A Satisfactory Position
Lynch replied swiftly and predictably. Delivered to the press on the 9th February, the day after Deasy’s statements were, Lynch’s written response was curtly matter-of-fact:
I am to inform you officially, on behalf of the Government and Army Command that the proposals contained in your circular letter on 29th January and the enclosure cannot be considered.
As in the case of all officers captured by the enemy, an officer has taken charge of [Deasy’s] recent command.
Privately, Lynch had a good deal more to say. In a personal letter addressed to Deasy, he lambasted his former confidant for impacting on a situation that had been, Lynch was sure, won in all but name:
Before you took action our position was most satisfactory from every point of view and that of the enemy quite the opposite. Your misguided action will cause us a certain set-back, but this will be got over and the war urged more vigorously than ever. It is clear you did not realise the actual fact and that at most you only took the local view into consideration.
Still, Lynch was not so enraged that he could not add: “Hoping that peace will soon be attained and that your life will be spared to the Nation.”
Lynch consoled himself with the thought that Deasy’s apostasy would have little effect on the rest of the IRA. In this, he was probably correct, in the opinion of his aide, Todd Andrews, if only because those still fighting had been benumbed to anything short of complete disaster.
When Christopher “Todd” Andrews received a summons to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, to see his Chief of Staff, he could only wonder what for. That Lynch knew of his existence at all was a surprise in itself. The only time they had ever met – if ‘met’ was not too strong a word – was prior to the Civil War. Andrews had been performing clerical duties in the Four Courts as part of its IRA garrison when Lynch stuck his head into his office, giving Andrews a pleasant smile when he saw there was no one else there, and departed without a word.
Still, an order was an order. Not wanting to keep his superior waiting, Andrews set off from South Wexford where he had been serving as part of its IRA brigade. Rain had begun to fall by then, in early February, and Andrews and the driver assigned to take him were soon soaked to the skin. A flooded road ahead forced them to take shelter for the night, with Andrews ferried across the swollen Barrow River the next morning.
Brought to a large country house, Andrews found Lynch in the parlour, seated by a table heaped with papers. Even years later, Andrews still vividly remembered the appearance of his commanding officer:
Liam was a handsome, six-foot-tall man, oval-faced with a noticeably high forehead from which light brown hair was slightly receding, although at this time he was only twenty-nine years old. Being short-sighted, he wore thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles.
Despite their difference in rank, Lynch greeted the newcomer in a friendly manner, introducing him to the third man in the parlour, Dr Con Lucey. A licensed physician, Dr Lucey served as the IRA Director of Medicine while doubling as Lynch’s secretary and driver.
After some small talk and tea, Lynch got down to business. He planned on travelling to Cork ‘to pull the South together’, as he put it, and wanted Andrews to accompany him as his adjutant. Flattered by the offer, and more than a little awed by the other man, Andrews was surprised further when Lynch asked for his opinion on the state of the war.
Andrews had not thought his views as a mere rank-and-filer could be worth much. But he had had the chance to study the fighting in different areas and at various times, allowing him to draw a number of conclusions, which he provided unsparingly to Lynch:
As far as I had the opportunity to observe at first hand, the military situation was going very badly. Nothing, of course, was happening north of the [Ulster] Border and between Dublin and the Border, except for Frank Aiken’s men, the IRA had virtually ceased to exist. I told him that I thought the Dublin Brigade was so reduced in personnel as to be militarily ineffective.
I related my experiences of the South Wexford men and the high opinion I formed of their quality and morale, but my information was that there was nothing to be hoped from Carlow, Kilkenny or North Wexford.
Lynch took all of this in his stride. A ‘glass half full’ person, he chose to be encouraged by the compliments his new adjutant paid to the South Wexford IRA rather than consider too deeply the rest of what had been said. Lynch said he felt certain he could put things to right once he was based again in the South, the part of the country he was most familiar with.
Andrews was not so sure. That their Director of Medical Services was also sharing in the duties of Lynch’s Man Friday did not strike him as the best advertisement for their organisational abilities but that was one thought he kept to himself.
‘A Simple, Uncomplicated Man’
Lynch could take some solace from his toils in the company of his new adjutant. The two men quickly bonded, Lynch being amused at Andrews’ often sardonic commentary on rural mores, delivered in his thick Dublin accent. That Andrews was not afraid to voice his opinions allowed the normally reserved Lynch to open up – and he had a lot on his mind to say.
He did not hate his enemies in the Free State. Instead, he felt only sadness that they should have dishonoured their nation so. That Collins had signed the Treaty in the first place, and thus keep Ireland under the British Crown, was a source of horrified wonder to Lynch, as was the increasing savagery of the Free State in its shooting of prisoners.
As incomprehensible such behaviour was to Lynch, Andrews was equally baffled at how the Chief of Staff could be so oblivious to the severity of their military situation. “He had developed some mental blockage which prevented him from believing that we could be beaten,” Andrews concluded. Lynch expressed more concern at the insulting use of the term ‘irregulars’ towards his forces – as if name-calling was a step too far alongside executions and murder – than he did at the impending possibility of defeat.
To the self-consciously worldly Andrews, his commander was a study in innocence:
He had no sophistication in any field; he was a simple, uncomplicated man, believing in God, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and, loving Ireland as he did, he had dedicated his life to her under God.
In keeping with such piety, Lynch would kneel to recite a decade of the Rosary every night before bed. Bitter at the clergy for their denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit, Andrews declined to join in these devotions, considering himself no longer a follower of Holy Mother Church. It was the only point of contention between the pair, with Lynch explaining to Andrews the distinction between the principles of the Catholic faith and the temporal politics by men of religion. 
The only indulgence Andrews saw Lynch partake of – besides excessive optimism – was a small whiskey in a roadside pub. Even that one occasion was the exception as, on every other time, Lynch had declined any alcohol offered in the houses he stayed in.
As promised, Lynch travelled south, Andrews by his side, leaving Leighlinbridge for the Nire Valley and then to the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, where he was due to meet Con Moloney. A Munster man to the core, Lynch was invigorated by being back on home territory, the company of his own people a welcome tonic to the months of hardship and disappointment.
But there was no time for dilly-dallying. After four or five days in the Glen, with Moloney nowhere to be seen, Lynch took off for West Cork to put a dampener on some unauthorised peace talks he had caught wind of. He left Andrews with instructions to inform Moloney, when he finally appeared, of his decision to set up base in the South where he could continue directing the war.
When Andrews learnt that Moloney had been picked up in one of the National Army’s sweeps, he realised that Lynch’s plan of ‘pulling the South together’ from Tipperary was already defunct. Any IRA structure there had collapsed into a desperate struggle by individuals just to survive.
When Andrews rejoined the Chief of Staff in Ballinyeary, he found Lynch at a table surrounded by papers and maps, Dr Lucey typing away at a side table, much like their first meeting. As before, Lynch received him warmly. He was unsurprised at the loss of Moloney and also undismayed when Andrews reported on the general state of disarray amongst the Tipperary IRA.
Lynch refrained from mentioning – Andrews learnt this from Lucey instead – about his muster with the staff and officers – those who were left – of the First Southern Division on the 26th February. Not only had they told him facts he had no wish to hear, they had pressed him into something he had been putting off for some time.
The First Southern Division
One misunderstanding Lynch had been keen to correct to the assembled delegates from the Cork and Kerry brigades – fourteen in all, including him – was that it had been Éamon de Valera who had turned down their initial request for an Executive meeting. While Lynch stressed the relationship between the IRA and de Valera’s government-in-exile as a tight one, he left the others in no doubt as to which wing of the republican struggle held the upper hand.
“The President was of great assistance,” Lynch assured them, “but had no authority to interfere in Army matters and he (C/S) was alone responsible for summoning Executive.”
Lynch had postponed a second meeting of the IRA Executive – the first had been four months before in October 1922 – due to the importance, he said, of officers remaining in their own brigade areas with no distractions. Also, Lynch had been on the move and so missed the correspondence from the First Southern Division about their desire for an Executive session.
It was a wishy-washy response on Lynch’s part – he had turned down the chance for an Executive meeting, yet could not be blamed for not calling another – but the other men seemed to let it pass. There was, after all, more to discuss, which boiled down to two points: the reaction to the Divisional ranks to Deasy’s surrender appeal and the state of morale otherwise.
The good news was that it was unanimously agreed that the former had had little effect. The bad was that no one present, save for Lynch, thought they had a chance of surviving through the summer, let alone of winning.
Great Hopes for the Future
“If the enemy pressure is maintained we can’t last and will be wiped out in a short time” was the verdict from the O/C of the First Kerry Brigade. Whether large operations or smaller-scale reprisals, any action on his unit’s part was impossible given its poverty of resources compared to the Free State’s, whose “steam rolling of the South would soon finish us,” he gloomily predicted.
The Divisional Director of Operations was of like mind and spread some of the blame on the other areas: “The whole position of the South depends on the rest of the country and the relief it can give us. All Brigades agree a summer campaign is impossible and if the rest of the country fails we cannot exist.”
He also pointed that the National Army had recruited up to 20,000 extra men. The Free State could keep resistance in the South pinned down and still have the numbers to focus on the rest of the country.
Lynch took all this naysaying in his stride. Having done his best listening impression, he told the others that he:
…quite realised the position in the South and the morale and suffering of the men and officers. It was in the South that the British were beaten and felt the attitude of the enemy towards the men who won the war for them. He reviewed the position in the rest of the country and although the position in the South was pretty bad he felt the situation in general was very good and held great hopes for the future.
He would not be continuing the war if he did not think they could win, Lynch assured them. None of those present appeared convinced, though no one had the gumption to openly doubt Lynch’s cheery forecast. Some instead took refuge in a grim fatalism, such as the O/C of the Third Cork Brigade who declared that his men would plough on “until beaten which is not far off.”
One common demand was for the overdue Executive meeting for which they had previously asked. That way, it was hoped that there could be a chance to clear the air and ask the necessary questions as to what to do next.
Lynch left the meeting with a certain amount of distaste for the outspokenness he had encountered. To him, such reluctance to keep quiet and press on was perilously close to mutiny. “What they mean by acting on their views, I cannot understand,” he complained in a letter to Con Moloney on the 29th February, three days after the pow-wow. “However, I hope we are now done with it.”
As for the doom and gloom on display, it had been for Lynch to endure, not seriously consider. Writing again to Moloney on the 2nd March, he said, unaware of how his recipient had five days left before capture: “I still have an optimistic view of the situation; if we can hold the Army fast all will be well.”
The Extracurricular Activities of Tom Barry
Another thorn in Lynch’s side was Tom Barry. P.J. Ruttledge, a prominent member of the Mayo IRA who spent much of the Civil War by Lynch’s side, remembered the celebrated hero of the famous West Cork flying column as being “always very annoying to Liam Lynch.”
His renown seemingly gone to his bushy head, Barry would sneer at others for their lack of pluck, while simultaneously insisting that the war was lost and it was time to surrender. While not incorrect, his abrasive manner did him no favours, and neither did the discovery that the Free State, according to Ruttledge, granted Barry carte blanche to travel as he pleased in the hope that he would win others to his point of view.
Frank Aiken, an Armagh-born member of the IRA Executive, also remembered how “Mr. Barry’s activities at that time [February 1923] were a source of great worry to the then Chief of Staff”, and that Lynch had written to Aiken, complaining at how “Barry is doing his worst here.”
Barry was assisted in ‘his worst’ by Father Tom Duggan, a priest broadminded enough to have been a chaplain in the British Army despite his staunchly republican views. This forbearance helped make Father Duggan liked and trusted by everyone, with the notable exception of Lynch, who made it clear both to the priest and Barry that no backtracking on the Republic was going to happen on his watch.
To punctuate the point, he wrote a strongly-worded letter, ordering his subordinate to cease and desist in his crusade for peace. The headstrong, increasingly independent Barry was proving to be, in his own way, just as much a nuisance as Deasy’s letter of surrender.
But, unlike poor, beaten Deasy, Barry was not someone Lynch could just brush aside.
‘A Tirade of Abuse’
Lynch probably assumed that his letter would be the end of the matter; that is, until the door to his bedroom for the night was kicked open, startling both him and Andrews. The adjutant’s first thought at seeing the figure in the doorway, a lighted candle in one hand and a sheet of papers in the other, was that the Free Staters had found them at last.
Instead, it was an incandescent Barry. He was waving the letter while demanding to know if Lynch had written it. When Lynch gave the briefest of answers in the affirmative, the floodgates opened:
Then followed a tirade of abuse from Barry mainly directed at asserting the superiority of his fighting record. Barry’s peroration was dramatic: ‘I fought more in a week than you did in your life.’ Liam simply said nothing. Having emptied himself of indignation, Barry withdrew, slamming the door.
Andrews could not help but laugh. It all seemed too much like something out of a theatrical comedy.
The mood between Barry and his nominal superior had scarcely improved when they met later in Ballingeary. When Lynch, Andrews and Dr Lucey arrived, they found Barry and Father Duggan, along with several others, already present on the other side of the street. The tension was palatable and, once again, Andrews drew comparisons to fiction, the scene resembling to him “a Western film where rival groups of ranchers come into some cowtown to shoot out their differences.”
Thankfully, the proceedings did not become that bad but, by the time the two parties withdrew, nothing between them had been resolved. There was no change in IRA policy, contrary to what Barry and Father Duggan had been pushing for, so in that regard Lynch had had his way – for now.
A Republican Itch
Barry’s frustrations did not stop him from being a consummate professional when called upon. Travelling on board a lorry with Lynch and his entourage to the Executive conclave, to be held once again in Co. Tipperary, Barry impressed Andrews with his care and dedication as he dismounted at every crossroads in order to ensure there were no ambushes-in-waiting. The mood inside the vehicle was a jovial one, the others amused at Barry’s take-charge attitude.
After stopping for the night, Lynch allowed a sickly-looking and careworn Andrews to stay behind. Like Deasy, Andrews had developed the ‘Republican itch’ or scabies, an infliction which Lynch remained serenely untouched by despite the two men sharing a bed. Quietly relieved at being spared a journey over the Knockmealdown Mountains, with the inevitable hell it would play on his sores, Andrews made no complaint and gratefully accepted the five-pound note Lynch handed him for expenses.
Before they separated for the last time, he and Lynch were able to enjoy one last chat. Lynch made it clear that he had not wanted the Executive meeting. He had not even wanted the Republican government-in-exile that the Anti-Treatyites had set up. Both bodies posed the danger that they would force some kind of compromise peace, the very last thing Lynch would ever agree to. Not that he was overly concerned, assuming as he did that whatever doubts and dissensions thrown his way would be brazened out.
Then Lynch dropped a bombshell. Andrews, he said, was to be assigned to take change of the West, where he was resting his hopes for a republican comeback. Having never held as much as a modest command nor even crossed the Shannon, Andrews could not help but wonder what Lynch was thinking:
I suppose I should have been flattered that the Chief of Staff should have viewed me in these favourable terms; I always thought that he regarded me as a reliable dogsbody, agreeable and sometimes amusing. On reflection, I didn’t take his remarks too seriously, feeling sure that with second thoughts he would realize the absurdity of the idea or, if not, someone would surely point it out to him.
Or so Andrews hoped. O’Malley had been equally flummoxed when Lynch assigned him to the organisation of the IRA in Ulster and Leinster, areas that he, like Andrews and the West, felt entirely unsuited for. Promoting people outside their comfort zones was clearly something of a habit for Lynch. Perhaps he saw only the best in them. Alternatively, he might have been lacking anyone else.
However, despite his perceived shortcomings, O’Malley had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Andrews might have done just as well, so Lynch’s instincts could have been correct at least on those occasions.
The Executive Meets
On the 23rd March, the IRA Executive assembled at Bliantas, west of the Nire Valley. Due to enemy presence, the attendees were obliged to move deeper into the Valley on the 25th, where they continued in Glenanore until the 26th. For all the difficulties, a reasonably sized number had managed to attend, such as Lynch, Barry, Tom Crofts, Seán MacSwiney, Humphrey Murphy, Bill Quirke and Seán Hyde.
Also there was de Valera, although it first had to be agreed whether he could sit in on the conclave. The President of the Republic waited outside until votes were taken for his admission, albeit without voting rights.
Nothing better illustrated de Valera’s powerlessness and failure to be anything other than a reluctant observer. When Lynch received word in February 1923 that the president was attempting to again use his ‘Document No. 2’ as an alternative to the Treaty, he wrote sharply, warning de Valera that “your publicity as to sponsoring Document No. 2 has had a very bad effect on army and should have been avoided.”
It was the same line Lynch had taken with Deasy: it was all great until you complained, and now everything wrong is your fault. He added cuttingly to de Valera: “We can arrange peace without reference to past documents.”
For all the degradation he had so far endured, de Valera made the most of his opportunity before the Executive, proposing certain terms with which peace with the Free State could be negotiated. To the surprise of no one, Lynch was adamantly opposed, as convinced as ever that victory was achievable.
According to one second-hand account who heard about the meeting afterwards: “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”
When Barry raised a motion that “in the opinion of the Executive, further armed resistance and operations against the F.S. Government will not further the cause of independence of the country”, it was defeated by six votes to five. Lynch had provided the deciding vote.
Back in the IRA Convention of June 1922, it had been Barry who had helped scupper Lynch’s plans for a reunification of the sundered IRA, the last ditch effort for a peaceful solution. Now Lynch had returned the favour.
Once again, Lynch had sidestepped the doubts of others and ensured that, by concluding on nothing, the meeting would make no difference to the war effort. But that so many were leaning towards some – any – kind of compromise meant that Lynch was not as in control of the Executive as he would have liked.
His own Deputy, Frank Aiken, openly agitated for de Valera’s suggestions in a foreshadowing of the political relationship to come. Austin Stack’s contribution was to argue for the IRA to stop fighting, but not to end the war per se, without explaining how these two opposing concepts could be met. It was typical of the disarray and confusion afflicting the anti-Treaty command.
“It proved impossible to reconcile the divergent views held by members of the Executive,” was how Florence O’Donoghue, Lynch’s friend and biographer, put it.
In a strange sense, history was repeating itself. Lynch had also struggled to rein in his Executive in the months leading up to the Civil War. The main difference was that then he had been regarded as unduly moderate, a sell-out in the making. Now the roles had been reversed and it was Lynch who was rejecting any deviations from the straight and narrow, regardless of what others wanted.
Waiting for Miracles
For want of anything else to say, it was agreed to hold another Executive meeting for the 10th April. To many, this might have seemed like nothing more than the dragging out of the inevitable. For Lynch, it had bought enough time for the Western resurgence he had spoken about to Andrews to start making a difference.
Another iron in the fire was the field artillery Lynch was expecting. He had assigned Seán Moylan to the United States in November 1922 to act as a liaison officer with sympathetic Irish-American groups. The Americans were to raise the funds that would be passed on to Germany for the purchase and later transport of the weapons.
Lynch was specific in his requests – four mountain batteries of artillery, with four guns to a battery, and as much ammunition as could be bought. Lynch predicated to Moylan that these “would completely demoralise enemy and end the war,” envisioning how it would only take one such weapon, shared between the IRA, to do the trick.
Such was his certainty that he felt entitled to quibble over the cost. Professing himself surprised at how much money he was told would be needed, he instructed Moylan not to worry over quantity. After all, “a big cargo is not required; even a few, with sufficient shells, would finish up the business here.”
In the end, none of these miracle weapons ever appeared. Neither did the all-conquering legions from the West. Perhaps these failures would have finally convinced Lynch of the hard truth before him. Perhaps not.
In the fortnight before the next Executive conclave, Lynch took refuge in a number of safe-houses. The most impressive was a converted cowshed near Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, artfully designed for concealment:
The whole building was about thirty feet long and ten wide, with corrugated iron walls and a roof partly of thatch and partly of corrugated iron. Access to the hiding place was from inside the cow shed, so that no trace led to it from outside, and the entrance was so cleverly constructed in what was apparently the inside of the end wall that it could not be opened except by one who knew the secret.
In the meantime, Tom Derrig was captured in Dublin on the 6th April, during which he was shot and wounded in the jaw. “It is understood that the authorities attach a considerable importance to Mr Derrig’s arrest,” wrote the Irish Times, as well the authorities might, for Derrig marked the fourth loss of an IRA Executive member, after O’Malley, Deasy and Moloney.
In a move more humiliating than harmful, but no less damaging, captured minutes for the First Second Division and the Executive meetings were published on the 8th April. The discord inside the anti-Treaty leadership between the die-hards, such as Lynch, and those who had had enough, like Barry and de Valera, were now exposed for all to see.
Before departing from his converted cowshed, Lynch had the heel of his boot fixed. A leather strap was found and used to bind his papers together. With these final details seen to, he and his party set off with a few others towards the meeting.
The group of six – Lynch, Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen and Seán Hyes – reached the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, where they spent the night in a friendly house. At 4 am on the 10th April, the scouts posted outside alerted them to the presence of an enemy column on the road to nearby Goatenbridge, forcing them to relocate to another house higher up on the mountain of Crohan West.
When daylight came, the men looked down on the valley and saw that the Free Staters were now in sufficient numbers to form three columns. They were not overly concerned, assuming that the Pro-Treatyites were merely on a routine patrol and would soon pass by.
It was classic Lynch. He had been underestimating the opposite side and overestimating his own since day one. The IRA men were settling down for a cup of tea at 8 am when a sentry rushed in to tell them that one of the columns was heading directly for them.
On the Run
Seeking the high ground, the six men dashed towards Crohan West. With only two revolvers between them, Lynch sent word to the two scouts posted elsewhere to come and join them. One had a Thompson machine gun and the other a rifle, with the power and range to better their odds. While they waited at the head of the glen and with neither of the scouts yet to be seen, the Free Staters appeared over a rise.
As shots were exchanged, the Anti-Treatyites fell back towards Crohan West, taking advantage of the cover afforded by a shallow riverbed until they had no choice but to dash across open ground. Seizing their chance, the Free Staters fired at the exposed men as quickly as their rifles allowed from between three and four hundred yards away. Their targets shot back ineffectively with their revolvers, more to distract than out of any real hope of causing harm.
Lynch was already winded from the run, prompting Hydes to take him by the hand and hurry him along. The firing had abruptly ceased, as if both sides were holding their breath, when a single shot rang out. Lynch fell.
“My God! I’m hit, lads!” he cried.
Scarcely believing their foul luck, the others went to Lynch’s side. Seeing their targets grouping together, the Free Staters below renewed their volleys. With no time for anything else, the party carried their stricken leader, with one reciting, and Lynch repeating, the Act of Contrition. In terrible pain, his misery worsened by the motion, Lynch begged his companions several times to leave him behind, saying – an optimist to the end – that the Staters might be able to bandage him.
Finally, the other five let him down and made the harsh decision to do what he said. Pausing only to pick up his gun and the documents, they continued in their flight across the mountain until finally out of sight and range.
“It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Aiken later wrote. He could not even bring himself to say farewell to Lynch lest the moment be too much. None of them see a reason why Lynch alone had been hit other than the implacable, inscrutable will of God. It seemed to Aiken as good an explanation as any.
“I am Liam Lynch”
Forcing their way through the thick undergrowth of brushwood that provided the only cover on that bleak mountaintop, the forty green-coated soldiers pressed on uphill. They found a man lying face up, cushioned by some shrubbery, his clothes dark with blood.
“Are you de Valera?” one of the soldiers asked him.
“I am not,” the stricken man replied. He sounded more weary than anything else. “I am Liam Lynch.”
Lynch had not even been spared the final indignity of mistaken identity, being confused with someone he had regarded as a figurehead at best, a nuisance at worst. He spoke little else as his captors carried him down the mountain in a litter to the village of Newcastle, where a priest and a physician administrated some spiritual and medical aid respectively. A National Army doctor who arrived soon after found two bullet wounds on either side of the wounded man, between his rib cage and hip, caused by the same bullet tearing through.
When the two doctors agreed that their patient would have to be moved to better facilities, an ambulance drove Lynch to the military ward of St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel, where he died almost three hours later, just before 9 pm. Death was ruled to be a result of shock and haemorrhaging. He was twenty-nine.
Among Lynch’s last recorded statements was: “You missed Dev by a few minutes.”
Searching the area further, soldiers found in a nearby farmhouse an assortment of clothing items such as hats and coats. It was concluded that the anti-Treaty conference had been in the process of assembling, and that if the National Army had struck half an hour later, it might have caught more than the one man they did.
Still, it was no less a significant catch. “The death of Liam Lynch removes one of the most important – if he was not actually the most important – of the leaders of the Republican party,” wrote the Irish Times, which described him as “the most obstinate and unflinching of the Government’s opponents.”
“Poor Liam, God rest him,” wrote O’Malley from Mountjoy, two days later on the 12th April. While he was sure that Aiken would do well as the new Chief of Staff, Lynch had had:
…an intimate knowledge of the South and a general knowledge of the personnel in all areas which Aiken has not and would not have for another twelve months, so really there is no one fit to step into his shoes. It’s the biggest blow by far we have received.
The difference between the two men would become even more apparent by the end of the month, when Aiken, working in tandem with de Valera, signed an order for the suspension of hostilities, to take effect on the 30th April. Meanwhile, de Valera was opening negotiations with the Free State.
Even when this political outreach proved fruitless, Aiken showed no desire to return to the fighting. On the 24th May, he ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War at long last.
Aiken intended for this to be a respite, not a surrender. “They are quite wrong if they think they have heard the last of the IRA and the Irish Republic,” he wrote to Lynch’s brother on July 1923. Lynch would have been horrified all the same but Aiken, unlike his late predecessor, was able to differentiate between what he wanted and what was possible.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 340
It did not appear inevitable – even when the first of the 18-pound shells struck the embattled Four Courts – for the hostilities in Dublin to run over into a country-wide war. True, the capital remained a battleground, with the Irish Times telling of how its streets, a week after the hostilities had begun, “are still swept by sniper’s bullets and machine-gun fire, and the centre of the city is the scene of a heavy battle.”
Still, the newspaper did not think all this would amount to anything beyond a brief, limited affair. After all, the National Army could claim control of Mullingar, Athlone, Longford and Trim. The expected hotspots of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary remained demur, while the anti-Treaty posts in Drogheda and Donegal had fallen. As far as the Irish Times was concerned, the Free State had already won:
The moral effect of its success in Dublin will be incalculable, while the prestige and experience which has been gained by the Army will be valuable assets to the national cause. With remarkably few military causalities, the back of the stubborn rebellion has been broken, Ireland’s youthful Army has won its spurs.
Which is not to say the opposing side was entirely done. There were remnants of it yet in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and the odd marksmen aiming down from the tops of buildings. Meanwhile, reports were had of more ‘Irregulars’ mustering southwards towards Blessington, Co. Wicklow. But what could these desperadoes really hope to achieve?
While these men may be able to embarrass the Government for a while by raids from the Dublin Mountains, they are not likely to constitute anything in the nature of a serious menace to the State. If there have been an attempt to bring about a general rising throughout the country, it has failed.
The Irregulars hold a few isolated positions, but the Government’s writ is running in every one of the twenty-six counties to-day.
Dublin’s slow return to normality gave some credence to this upbeat forecast. Shops were reopening, food deliveries had resumed and workers could be seen returning to their offices. But, as it happened, the ‘rebellion’ had not been broken, its partisans remained as stubborn as before, and a fumbling National Army would struggle to keep a grip on the spurs it had only just earned.
A Bloody Phoenix
By August, it was not clear if any writ by the Government was in effect even in its capital city. The Four Courts had fallen, with much of its garrison led off into captivity, but the conflict showed no signs of diminishing, merely shifting into a less tangible presence.
No longer would the Irish Republican Army (IRA) occupy buildings and provide big, convenient targets to be battered into submission by artillery. When the Anti-Treatyites fought back, it was with slower, more gradual methods, the sort that had served so well in the war against the British. For the past two and a half years, from the start of 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, the IRA had used the techniques of the guerrilla to fight Crown forces to a standstill. There no reason to believe they would be any less effective against the new, indigenous foe.
Such recovered elusiveness was displayed on the 1st August 1922, when several shots were fired at National Army men on duty outside the Four Courts Hotel at 10 pm. Almost an hour later, further shots were aimed at soldiers standing in Brunswick Street. None were injured but, despite vigorous searches, no one was arrested either. This method of surprise assaults, sprung almost simultaneously in separate parts of the city, was to be repeated over the subsequent weeks, to the point of becoming an IRA hallmark.
The night of the 1st September was only one such occasion, when attacks were launched on several different National Army patrols, between 10 and 12 pm. Soldiers stationed in the Technical School on Lower Kevin Street found themselves sniped at from nearby streets. The Four Courts Hotel was again raked with bullets from a machine-gun on the other side of the Liffey. One Pro-Treatyite was wounded, with another narrowly avoiding worse when his cap was struck off his head. At the same time, shots were made against the soldiers by City Hall.
In another part of the county that night, a small National Army guard in the schoolhouse at Rathfarnham managed to drive off an attack that lasted twenty minutes. The assailants paused in their retreat to set fire to the local police barracks. It was the second time the building had been so mistreated, the previous occasion being as part of the war against Britain. Other than that, the only causality in Rathfarnham was a wounded Pro-Treatyite unlucky enough to have been shot and wounded in the abdomen just before the assault began.
“Sniping occurred in other localities, and the shooting was continued until after 1 o’clock in the morning, when only spasmodic outbursts were heard,” reported the Irish Times. “The troops were very active in the streets, stopping and questioning those who were moving about late at night.”
Explosions in the City
Active or not, such ex post facto searches were inadequate in preventing subsequent incidents. On the 13th September, at 3 pm, a bomb was thrown in the path of a lorry carrying National Army men as it drove along Eden Quay. Two of the Pro-Treatyites were reported to be slightly wounded in the blast, along with some unfortunate bystanders.
Later that day, a little after 6 pm, three more military lorries were passing by St Stephen’s Green West when some men who had been loitering behind the park railings pulled out pistols and opened fire. The mass of civilians fled for the shelter of nearby shops and laneways, the noise of the gunshots being briefly drowned out by the detonation of bombs cast into the fray.
It was later estimated that three such explosives were used altogether, one thrown by the group in St Stephen’s Green, the other two from a twin ambush party next to the College of Surgeons. Unscathed, the Free Staters leapt off their vehicles and gave chase through the greenery of the park, pursuing some if their fleeing assailants into Dawson Street and others to Lower Leeson Street. One ambusher was overtaken and arrested, the only other causality besides three civilians wounded in the mayhem.
‘The Most Nerve-Racking Cork Has Experienced’
A similar picture was unfolding in Cork. Initially, Major-General Emmet Dalton had been pleasantly surprised at the lack of resistance when he led pro-Treaty forces into the city on the 10th August 1922. He felt confident enough to crow to his superiors that the enemy had been “crowded into positions of a barren nature and without a base for supplies.”
Soon enough, however, Dalton, like countless conquerors before and since, was to find out that taking a place is quite different to holding it.
On the night of the 14th August, a number of bridges to the north and west of Cork City were destroyed under the cover of darkness. The IRA had been imitating a similar move on the 5th August by their Dublin comrades, although whereas the Dubliners had badly botched their operation, suffering heavy losses, the Corkonians had been far more successful.
Twelve days later, the evening of the 26th was to be described by the Cork Examiner as “one of the most nerve-racking that Cork has experienced for quite a long time.” The sounds of revolvers and machine-guns reverberated through the streets, convincing many in the suburbs that a major battle was taking place in the urban centre. When morning came and the stock was taken of the situation, it was shown that the IRA, true to form, had been active at different points.
First attacked had been the old police barracks on College Road, the only such building not razed during the flight of the Anti-Treatyites from the city. Bombs had shattered the unprotected top-storey windows, the lower ones only surviving due to their steel shutters. But the besiegers had not had everything their own way, with four of their number captured when the garrison emerged in a surprise counter-attack.
No Speedy End
The next assault was on the train station at Albert Quay shortly after midnight. This was not the first time it had been shot at, having been the target of snipers before, but this was the most determined enfilade so far, as gunmen positioned in the ruins of City Hall and the Carnegie Library opened fire, to be returned by Pro-Treatyites from across the river. The guerrillas pulled back but, as the Cork Examiner described:
…their retreat did not mean the end of the firing. Volley after volley rang out in various parts of the city later in the night, and it was assumed that small parties of irregulars and patrols of the National troops came into contact at many places during the early hours of the morning.
Meanwhile, Cork’s most famous son, Michael Collins, was lying in state in Dublin, slain while driving out of his home county. There had been hopes among his colleagues, as Ernest Blythe described, “that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken.” Instead, the conflict began to resemble a lingering disease, one that the country could not quite shake off.
The Free Staters achieved some success in Cork on the 2nd September, when a secret munitions factory was uncovered in a house on the corner of South Mall and Queen (now Father Matthew) Street. Bombs, ammunition and, most critically, the machinery with which to churn out more such munitions were found. While a blow had been struck against the insurgency, the very fact that the IRA had been able to set up such a factory in the heart of the city was an uncomfortable reminder of just how tenuous the Free State’s grip really was.
Such a loss did little to hinder the Corkonian guerrillas as far as could be ascertained. On the 18th September, Moore’s Hotel was raked with machine-gun bullets from across the river. The Pro-Treatyites on duty returned shots with a heavy firearm of their own, the exchange lasting for five minutes, during which an elderly woman was struck eight times while sitting by a window. As she recovered in hospital, the wounds were judged to be superficial but the woman remained in critical condition, suffering from – unsurprisingly – shock.
‘No Zeal – No Dash’
By early November 1922, Dalton was reporting to the Minister of Defence, General Richard, Mulcahy, that he was “beginning to lose hope…there is no zeal – no dash – no organisation or determination.”
Public support had waned to the point that Dalton believed there were more republicans in Cork than there had been during the June election. He blamed the lack of boots he had on the ground, citing how one could travel seventy or eighty miles through the county without coming across a single National Army man.
His warning to Mulcahy was stark: “In Cork, we are going to be beaten unless we wake up and at once.”
Dalton was suffering from morale problems of his own. He had left for Dublin in late September to be wed, returning to his command with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. November saw him abruptly handing in his resignation, leaving the top brass uncertain with whom to replace him. Two applicants were rejected in turn by the Cork officers, suspicious as they were of outsiders, with a third refusing the offer.
The Quartermaster-General, Seán Ó Muirthile, finally agreed to take over in January 1923, albeit on a temporary basis. His reticence was understandable in light of how he had only narrowly avoided death the month before, when a grenade was thrown at his car in Dublin, hitting him on the head but rolling out of harm’s way before it could explode.
The war appeared to be at a stalemate, the Free State unable to deliver the killing wound, while the IRA lacked the strength and numbers to do more than chip at the new government. The impasse was threatening to drag both armies down into a morass of lethargy.
When Father Dominic O’Leary, a priest with republican sympathies, wrote to Ernie O’Malley in Dublin on the 12th September 1922, he told with some amazement about the large number of men he saw outside the recruitment office for the National Army on Brunswick Street. When asked, they had told the padre that since the war was as good as over in their view, they might as well sign up for pay at minimal risk.
Father O’Leary suggested to O’Malley that a few bullets be fired over their head to disabuse them of such blithe notions. If that failed, then some more shots, and not as a warning, were called for. “Why not fire, if we are in earnest?” the priest asked bitterly.
Meanwhile, O’Leary said:
I am mixing with the people, our own people who are daily asking what is being done, with the enemy who are gloating that Dublin is finished and the rest of the country will soon be the same, with the members of the IRA who are ‘fed up’ with enforced idleness, with their dependants who make no complaint except that the boys are being arrested and are doing nothing, that the enemy and his spies are being allowed such latitude.
It was unlikely that O’Malley needed any backseat generals to point out how ‘fed up’ everyone was. He had been pushing for more aggressive tactics for some time but to no avail, stymied by his more cautious Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, who preferred his warfare on the conservative side. “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics,” Lynch wrote in reply to O’Malley’s impatience.
O’Malley might have taken solace with how the other side was not faring much better. The promised wages that had tempted many into the National Army were frequently tardy. Much needed equipment also had the habit of not materialising.
One colonel admitted that the quarter-mastering “was simply diabolical…I had two enemies, one was the Irregulars and the other was the QMG [Quartermaster-General].” Soldiers resorted to dyeing their civilian clothes green for want of proper uniforms, or purchasing khaki cloth with which to make improvised uniforms.
This deadlock was recognised as such by the special correspondent for the Irish Times. Writing on the 20th September, he described how “ever since the radical change in strategy made by the irregulars in August it has been increasingly difficult for the national Army to strike any blow of immediate effect.”
The reverting by the IRA to guerrilla warfare – the change of strategy noted by the journalist – denied the Free State military the chance to bring its superior numbers and firepower to bear. Instead, its upper echelons had tried to adjust accordingly:
Faced by this change, the commanders of the National Army determined to adopt a plan of campaign which should have been suitable. Towns were garrisoned with posts of varying size to keep the irregulars from supplies, mobile columns organised to pursue the enemy in their fastness and “sweeps” organised to clear areas where the irregulars were dispersed in small bodies.
‘Should’ was the operative word here. Problems facing this bold innovation included the poor training and inexperience of many junior officers, compounded by insufficient transport for these proposed sweeps.
Fatigue increasingly plagued the pro-Treaty forces as well as the country as a whole. “We were losing the support of the people, our men were war weary and the going was too heavy for us,” remembered Padraig O’Connor, later the Director of Operations to the National Army. It was not until February 1923 that some semblance of order took shape but, until then, “our men had no grub, no uniforms and no pay.”
Todd Andrews had these small victories in mind in later years as he tried to make sense of where his side had gone so badly wrong. He could not help wondering if things would have been different if his fellow Anti-Treatyites had mustered several large commando teams with which to deliver a knock-out punch. True, “our morale was very low, but if we had the wit to realize it, the morale of the Free Staters, put to the test, was no better.” The rapid collapse of the National Army in Kilkenny was surely proof of that.
But inertia was as much a danger as bullets and prison. Even areas where the Anti-Treatyites were strongest – namely Cork, Kerry and Tipperary – could not escape the creeping sense of helplessness as more and more high-ranking officers were lost to enemy raids. Though their vacant positions were filled readily enough, the hard-won knowledge these men had provided could not be so easily replaced.
For a while, in the latter months of 1922 and early 1923, it seemed likely that the war would be decided by whichever side fell apart first.
Such frustrations fed into the burgeoning hopes among both armies that they could escape the quagmire they were in via the much less painful method of negotiation. But, as far as many in the Free State Government was concerned, however, such consideration was at best wishful thinking, at worst defeatism. Blythe recalled how:
Individual Commanders in various areas, instead of pursing the war with full vigour as they ought to have done, were inclined to try to make contact with their opposite numbers and enter upon discussion. This seems to have extended, with the exception of a few higher officers, right through the top ranks of the Army.
It got to the point that the Cabinet had to hold a meeting to rule out even the thought of negotiations. There would be no further dialogue with the Anti-Treatyites save when it came to accepting their surrender. The National Army from now on would throw its energy towards final victory – at least, in theory.
At a subsequent Cabinet session, the Minister of Defence, Mulcahy, tried to open with an awkward joke: “Let everyone put his gun on the table.”
Perhaps such an attempt at humour was a disguise for nerves. As Ernest Blythe sat at the opposite end of the table, waiting for the last of his colleagues to straggle in late, he was curious as to what Mulcahy had to say that was so important to call this urgent meeting.
Mulcahy proceeded to inform them that he had made arrangements some time ago to meet de Valera. This had been before the Cabinet decided against any further tête-à-têtes with the enemy. Mulcahy had been present when the choice was made. He had apparently agreed in full, only to go straight out of the Government building and into his car, to the rendezvous with Éamon de Valera as originally intended.
Mulcahy gave an outline of the forbidden talk, though most of the room was too shocked to pay much attention. When Mulcahy finished, there was only an uncomfortable silence. “All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation,” as Blythe remembered.
But given that the Government was on a war footing, with none of them besides Mulcahy knowing much about military matters, nobody felt confident in taking such a step. Mercifully, President W.T. Cosgrave broke the oppressive silence with a curt “That’s all” and left the room, followed by the rest of his Cabinet.
Nothing else was said. Mulcahy never entirely recovered his standing in the Cabinet, at least not where Blythe was concerned. “Personally, I may say that the whole incident affected my mind very deeply in regard to General Mulcahy, and I never had full confidence in him afterwards.”
Striking a Bargain
Within the upper echelons of the other side, there were similar thoughts and fancies towards sidestepping the need for further violence. On the 28th September, Con Moloney, the Adjutant General to the IRA Executive, took the daring step of posing to his colleagues a pair of questions that many of them must surely have pondered already, if not quite so openly: “Will or can the enemy beat us? Can we beat the enemy?”
The answers to both, in Moloney’s estimate, was an emphatic ‘no’.
What then, he asked, was the alternative? For now, the IRA had to maintain a steady course until the Free Staters were willing to talk. At which point, Moloney wrote: “We will be able to strike a hard bargain.”
Anticipating the outcries, Moloney took a suitably no-nonsense tone: “There is no use blinding ourselves to the past. Negotiations are bound to come sooner or later.” For Moloney’s part, he would be in favour of ending the war under the following guarantees:
Any future Ministers of Defence to be nominees of the reunited Army.
The Chief of Staff to be elected by a convention, where attendance would be restricted to IRA members from before the 1921 Truce.
The Army to be controlled by an Executive and an Army Council, both bodies also to be elected at conventions.
The Executive to have the right to declare war and peace. The Government could also exercise these same powers but subject to approval of the Executive.
All the talk of conventions was a throwback to the months preceding the Civil War, when the anti-Treaty IRA had displayed their independence in the holding of three such gatherings, where issues had been debated without outside interference or supervision. What Moloney equated to a ‘hard bargain’ would be in effect a surrender by the other side. After all, the Free State was not waging a war in order to submit itself to the dictates of its own military.
In contrast, Liam Lynch made plain his preference for the simpler, might-makes-right approach. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy,” he told Liam Deasy, one of his closest confidants, in early September. “We should strike our hardest for some time, and this would make the question of policy easier to settle.”
Unlike Moloney, Lynch had little faith in the prospect of talks. Much had already been suggested by one party or another and none had amounted to anything. When Éamon de Valera was making his way to see Deasy in Co. Cork in late August 1922, Lynch sent a dispatch ahead to warn Deasy not to encourage the other man in any of his schemes on how best to end the war, ideas that Lynch clearly had not the faintest interest in.
Lynch had not always thought that way. Even after the assault on the Four Courts, Lynch had nurtured the hope that the Pro-Treatyites could be made to see reason. Only after the ceasefire in Limerick he had helped sign was thrown on the scrapheap by the Free State was he convinced that this would be a fight to the finish. It was a course he would remain on unswervingly, taking with him the rest of his army for as long as he drew breath.
Still, he did nothing to reprimand Moloney. Neither did he discourage the possibility of negotiations – for now.
Meeting the Enemy
Colonel Tom Ennis and Captain Charles Russell, both senior officers in the National Army, had already cut striking figures in the conflict. The latter had flown a Bristol fighter plane over the town of Buttevant, Co. Cork, while using a machine-gun to strafe an enemy-occupied house, swooping low enough for the return bullets to pierce his airplane.
As for Ennis, he had led the first of the National Army soldiers into Cork City on the August 1922, brushing aside the few IRA defenders on the way. Ennis proved as chivalrous as he was formidable, as his subsequent refusal to have any prisoners executed, in defiance of Free State policy, ensured that Cork would remain unsullied by this grim measure.
Ennis was thus a fitting choice to play peacemaker. He had tried before, while assisting his then-commanding officer, Emmet Dalton, shortly after their capture of Cork. But this initiative had fallen through due to the insistence by the Free Staters on an unconditional surrender. When Deasy reported this to his Chief of Staff, Lynch did not doubt that the two men had been acting on their Government’s orders but was baffled as to why they did not contact him directly, the idea that anything could be accomplished outside the proper chain of command being anathema to him.
By the time of another outreach attempt on the 13th October 1922, Ennis was feeling more broadminded. After being given safe passages, Deasy and Tom Barry drove to a neutral house near Crookstown, Co. Cork, to meet Ennis and Russell (there was no mention of any involvement by Dalton this time). An IRA intelligence officer, Seán Hyde, accompanied the other two Anti-Treatyites. Later appointed the O/C of the Western Command, Hyde would furnish Lynch with the sort of overly optimistic reports that Deasy blamed for feeding Lynch’s misplaced determination to fight on.
As well as the four military men, Father Tom Duggan was present at the talks. Liked and trusted by both sides in the Treaty divide, the priest would continue to play a prominent – and, for Lynch, largely unwelcome – role in subsequent peace attempts. Such talks would become a taboo subject with Lynch, who did his utmost to stamp them out, convinced that they were a detriment to morale. For the moment, however, he was content to grant the authorisation to give them a chance.
The meeting did not enjoy the most amiable of starts. Deasy began by telling the Free State pair that tempers were running hot on his side due to the legislation being put through the Dáil, establishing military courts with the power of execution for unauthorised possession of arms, a move clearly aimed at POWs. Such was the mood of the Anti-Treatyites, Deasy warned, that they had decided on reprisals against those held responsible.
Despite this sobering opening, the rest of the talks were conducted in a friendly manner. When it was time to depart, the opposing sides did so in good spirits, Russell taking the time afterwards to drive the two enemy envoys through the Free State sentries.
A Role for Politics?
Another question to consider was where Éamon de Valera fitted in. Joseph O’Connor had already conferred on the matter with the former President of Dáil Éireann at the outbreak of the war in the former’s York Street headquarters. While the battle enfolded in the city centre, O’Connor, an officer in the Dublin IRA as well as part of the IRA Executive, tried persuading de Valera of the political and propaganda benefits if:
They could set up a Republican Committee to take the benefit of the Army successes and force them on the attention of the ordinary people. This, I was sure, would be good for the Nation and the fighting men.
De Valera was not so sure. He understood enough about the Executive to know that the IRA officers making it up would resent an interloper like him. He eventually agreed to give O’Connor’s notion a try, or at least bring it to the attention of the other anti-Treaty leaders who were holed up in the Hammam Hotel on Sackville Street. O’Connor gave him a guide to help him through the Free State cordon to the Hammam.
“I never heard what happened to the proposal, nor how it was received,” O’Connor later wrote. He was not too concerned, sure as he was that all the IRA had to do was press on and the Pro-Treatyites would come to their senses. When that did not happen, it was decided that the Dubliners should abandon their posts and revert to the old methods of insurgency. “What a pity it was that we lost those few first days in Dublin!” O’Connor later complained.
At first, it was hoped that they could keep the Free Staters confined to the city. When that too did not come to pass, and the IRA elsewhere in the country went on the defensive, O’Connor feared that the Republic would be lost without a means to rally the masses to its cause.
He saw a chance when he received word that Lynch had called for a session of the Executive, set to take place in Tipperary town in October 1922. O’Connor had been pressing de Valera to take up the political reins as they had discussed before. For hours at a house in Stillorgan, he entreated de Valera to find some kind of formula they could use, but to little avail. Pulling on his overcoat as he prepared to leave, O’Connor implored the other man to give the question some further thought.
Over the Galtees
They met again in Upper Mount Street, just before O’Connor set off for Tipperary, and de Valera handed him some proposals:
These followed the original lines – the political party accepting responsibility for all matters outside the actual direction of the fighting forces in the field; the Army Authorities to work in conjunction with the elected republican representatives and to give them the full co-operation in maintaining the freedom of our whole country.
Pleased, O’Connor promised he would deliver these to the Executive. Travelling by train to Limerick Junction, he walked the rest of the three miles to Tipperary town. Arriving at the safe-house prepared in advance, he learnt that the meeting had been postponed due to the presence of the enemy who were housed in the town’s barracks, a stone’s throw away from where O’Connor was staying. The Anti-Treatyites were having to survive while cheek-by-jowl to those who would capture or kill them on sight.
He whiled away the time, staring idly into the barrack square, until being picked up that night by two others who were to guide him to the new meeting place in the Glen of Aherlow. As they crossed the Galtee Mountains, a sudden fog forced them to wait until it cleared. When it did, “we got a beautiful view of the Golden Vale. It was surely a land worth fighting for.”
O’Connor arrived to find a number of his colleagues already there. That he was wearing a hard hat in the mountains struck them as hilariously incongruous. When Lynch appeared, the others noticed that their Chief of Staff had lost weight, his normally thin face bonier than ever.
Lynch had come by pony and trap, accompanied by P.J. Ruttledge, the Vice O/C for the IRA Western Command. They also encountered the thick mist on the way. “We couldn’t see the road over the mountains,” Ruttledge wrote. “Sometimes we were on it, other times not. We half walked, half wandered.”
En route, the two men had passed through Carlow. When the senior IRA officer there asked what they would do if stopped by a Free State patrol, Lynch had pulled out a gun in response. “I’ll know what I’ll say,” he said.
The Executive Meets
That display of bravado seemed to set the tone for the subsequent gathering. Spread out over the course of two days, the 16th and 17th October 1922, the sessions of the IRA Executive were notable in the steely determination on display. Indeed, to an onlooker, it might have appeared that the Civil War had already been won and all that was left was the settling of affairs, with a confident eye to the future.
First on the agenda was the defence of Lynch’s good name, an issue on which Lynch seemed incapable of moving past. Acting as chairman, he explained to the others how he had been brought before Eoin O’Duffy immediately after the attack on the Four Courts, a little under four months ago.
This interview with the enemy general had been used to cast him “in a very dishonourable light by Free State propaganda”, which alleged that Lynch had talked himself out of imprisonment by promising to remain neutral. When the war was over, Lynch assured his audience, he would insist on the event being properly examined.
That he would be in a position to demand anything was taken for granted. In any case, the topic moved on to one more useful: the results of the talk Deasy and Barry had had with the two National Army representatives. There, Captain Russell had proposed:
The disbandment of both armies.
A formation of a Volunteer Army under an agreed Independent Executive, whose officers would be pledged to force the Government to delete the more objectionable elements from the Free State Constitution within a stated time.
The new Army to be servants of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned, e.g. law and order.
No further Minister of Defence.
In place of the aforementioned Minister, a staff commander would liaison with the Government when necessary.
A police force to be modelled on the Canadian system, as in one man appointed in each town who could call on the civil population for assistance if need’s be.
(The last point was something of an oddity. It may have been influenced by memories of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and perhaps by a desire not to follow in the footsteps of the Free State in its attempt at a centralised police force of its own.)
Russell had told Barry and Deasy that, upon his return to Dublin, he would present these proposals to Mulcahy as the Minister of Defence. If this failed, he promised to agitate for defections among like-minded souls in the National Army.
Notably, this last part of Russell’s – “to leave the Free State Army” – was crossed out by Lynch in the Executive minutes and replaced with “to force the issue with M/D [Minister of Defence]”. Lynch had striven to keep the IRA intact in the months before the Civil War, and it seems that he remained true to this principle even now. Any new army would come as a whole, not fractured, one.
The hope that the Free State would simply cave in on itself was nurtured among its opponents, particularly when victory by any other means had become distinctly unlikely. Even the Eeyore-ish Liam Deasy, looking on gloomily as the war effort collapsed around him, had dared to believe that “the separatist element in the Free State Army…would see the futility of reimposing English domination, what many of them had fought to break.”
Following points discussed by the Executive in reference to Russell’s proposals were:
The Army to be reorganised to how it had been prior to the signing of the Treaty in December 1921.
A Provisional Executive, pending the appointment of an Executive at the annual convention.
The Constitution must be formed so as to definitely exclude Ireland from the British Empire [in other words, the negation of the Treaty].
The Army was to be the servant of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned.
The second day was spent mostly on fine-tuning what had already been laid down. An Army Council was formed, headed by Lynch (as Chief of Staff) and made up of Ernie O’Malley (Acting Assistant Chief of Staff), Liam Deasy (Deputy Chief of Staff), Tom Derrig (Assistant Adjutant General) and Frank Aiken, the only one of them not present that day. This body was empowered by the rest of the Executive to discuss terms of peace in so much that would not bring Ireland back into the British Empire.
What to do with the instruments of the Free State was also discussed. As for the fledgling police force in the form of the Civic Guard, it was decided to postpone any definite decision until more was known about it. The same went for the magistrates and civil administration, which could still be of some use. The newly found, if outlandish, interest in the Canadian way of policing was put on the backburner – for good, as it turned out, as it was never raised again.
Another proposal from Moloney – though presumably O’Connor had talked to him about it beforehand – urged, on behalf of the Executive, for the absent de Valera to form a government, one which would preserve the continuity of the Republic:
We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic, and we empower it to make an arrangement with the Free State Government, or with the British Government provided such arrangement does not bring the country in to the British Empire.
In case anyone was unclear as to who would be calling the shots: “Final decision on this question to be submitted for ratification to the Executive.”
De Valera’s response to receiving this warning – thinly masked as a conditional promise that his army partners would follow any new government of his for as long as he did what he was told – could only be imagined.
At least he would be free to choose his cabinet, which would be little more than a government-in-exile for as long as the current circumstances persisted. It was also window-dressing, a façade of constitutional respectability over the hard truth that power in the anti-Treaty camp rested in its military which, for all its talk of acting as the servant, had no intention of being anything other than the master.
Custodians of the Republic
A proclamation was next issued, blaming the current disorder on those public representatives who had, last December, voted for the Treaty and, in doing so, “violated their pledge and their oaths.” Under such circumstances, there was only one thing to be done:
WE, on behalf of the soldiers of the Republic in concert with such faithful members of DÁIL ÉIREANN, as are at liberty, acting in the spirit of our Oath as the final custodians of the Republic, have called upon the former President, Éamon de Valera, to resume the Presidency, and to form a Government which shall preserve inviolate the sacred trust of National Sovereignty and Independence.
The words ‘junta’ or ‘military dictatorship’ were never uttered. Quite likely, such terms never occurred to the men present. As far as they were concerned, they were merely custodians. Any power they had invested in themselves was for the purpose of righting a wrong, of forcing a wayward civil government back on the only true path it could take.
Yet a junta or a dictatorship was exactly what would have happened had Lynch had had his way.
Even before the outbreak of the civil war, when it seemed likely that the two opposing IRA factions would be reunite under a GHQ consisting men from both sides – an arrangement very similar to what had been proposed at the Executive meeting – Lynch had shown hints of a budding autocrat. According to Ruttledge, Lynch had:
…thought that whatever job he was offered on the composite staff, that if he got it, he would be able to control the army. He was very persistent in his belief.
As for the proposals put forward by Ennis and Russell, there is no evidence that they were ever read, let alone considered, by anyone in the Free State and certainly not by anyone of importance. That such a conciliatory attempt ever happened remains nothing more than a historical curiosity, a tease for the battered Anti-Treatyites that victory and salvation might just be around the corner.
For all the self-congratulation, at least two Executive members left the meeting distinctly unimpressed.
To O’Malley, all the talking had done was expose the lack of any coherent strategy besides waiting for success to fall into their laps. In practical terms, O’Malley knew, this would amount to being worn down and picked off piecemeal.
Not that he had much better to contribute. His suggestion for the Munster men to form motorised columns – much like he had done in the first week of the war – with which to attack enemy posts was clearly fantastical, given the paucity of even basic resources for the Anti-Treatyites. Resigned, O’Malley returned to a Dublin that was becoming increasingly fraught with enemy raids and searches.
Despite his disappointment, O’Malley remained as committed to the war as before. He and Lynch may have differed on many points, but not that key one. If nothing else, he had found the Executive get-together useful as a talking shop.
“You may remember that you promised to forward me particulars with regard to the manufacture of Smoke Grenades when I was at the Executive meeting,” O’Malley wrote to Deasy on the 26th October. O’Malley also wanted information from Deasy on incendiary grenades. “I think there should be a regular exchange of ideas on this subject,” he said.
Deasy, on the other hand, had already drawn the conclusion that the war was as good as lost. As he studied the performance of Munster units he oversaw as O/C of the First Southern Division, mulling over the mess they were in:
It appeared to me then that no real resistance was being offered to the Free State Army, apart from the Second Kerry and Fifth Cork Brigades and that we could never achieve anything we hoped for. Despite all this, Lynch was entirely unmoved in his steady determination to continue the fight.
Lynch, in Deasy’s opinion, put far too much stock in the reports he received, many of which told him only what he wanted to believe. If only Lynch had seen more of the areas he was reading about, Deasy thought, and met the officers on the ground, he might have developed a more realistic view of what was possible – and what was not.
But this still might not have been enough, Deasy concluded: “[Lynch] was however, so set on victory that I doubt even this would have changed his thinking.” Deasy could not help but admire him all the same. His commander was “to the very end an idealist with the highest principles as his guide and it was not in his nature to surrender or to compromise. He ultimately gave his life for those principles.”
Whatever his growing doubts about the war, Deasy had none in regards to Lynch’s leadership, being content at least to follow him as ardently as ever. Lynch had reciprocated such fealty when he made Deasy his Deputy Chief of Staff. It was a trust that was to be severely shaken.
After leaving the Executive meeting, Deasy took command of his new post, near Tincurry, Co. Tipperary. In addition to his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff, Deasy was also to take charge of a newly-formed division, the First Western, encompassing all of Munster, along with Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and Laois. He was keen to make contact with the units of the last two counties as he knew very little about them.
With this in mind, he set off towards North Tipperary. The sunshine that day was unusually bright for November, not that he had time to appreciate it, being forced to avoid the main roads and even the secondary ones, going cross-country instead, such were the frequency of Free State patrols.
He made it to Boherlahan at dusk, just when two enemy lorries were passing through, forcing him to vault over a wall. Reaching Kilcommon, Deasy, who had been on the move for the past fortnight, covering in his estimate a hundred and forty miles on foot, finally had the chance to sleep soundly in the safe-house for the night.
He was also able to make contact with Paddy Lacken, the O/C of the North Tipperary Brigade. Lacken was the rare case of an officer for that area still at liberty, most of the others being in jail, leaving North Tipperary essentially dormant. The territory from Nenagh to the Offaly border was in Free State hands, as was East and Mid-Limerick.
It was a depressing, if not wholly unexpected, picture, one that did not improve when Lacken took Deasy in a pony trap to Toomevara for a rendezvous with some officers from Offaly and Laois who, after two days of waiting, never appeared.
Deasy could only conclude that they had been captured. He stoically accepted this likelihood before withdrawing from the plains of Toomevara for the relative safety of the Tipperary hills, developing a chest complaint on the way. Lacken took charge, leading Deasy to the home of a friend of his on the southern slopes of Slieve Felin, arriving there safely despite the thick fog which would at least deter hostile search parties.
Deasy was recovering at this house when Lacken arrived, during a break in the mist, with a copy of that day’s newspaper. To his horror, Deasy read how two Dáil deputies, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been ambushed in Dublin on the 7th December, with the former slain and the other wounded in a hail of bullets.
The following day, in retaliation, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Prison, where they had been held since the fall of the Four Courts. They were then executed by firing squad.
Deasy had known all the victims, being particularly close to Hales and Barrett. His already fragile health crumbling further, he slipped into a black despair, spending a sleepless night trying to figure out where everything had gone so horribly wrong.
The Republican Itch
The week crawled by with excruciating slowness. By the 14th December, Deasy, believing he was well enough to leave his sickbed, arranged with Lacken to depart the next morning. He was undressing for bed when he saw the first symptoms of scabies on his thighs. His condition had worsened by the morning, with his skin opening all over, blood and pus oozing out of the cracks.
The faithful Lacken helped him to a nearby doctor who bandaged the affected flesh, allowing him at least to travel, albeit gingerly, in a pony and trap. Crossing the Galtees, Deasy spent the next three weeks in bed, the scabies having spread throughout his whole body. His misery was alleviated somewhat by a female member of the family he was staying with. A trained nurse, she helped to apply the necessary bandages.
Visitors from the Tipperary IRA such as Con Moloney, Dan Breen and Bill Quirke kept him abreast of news, not that there was much to report. By early January, Deasy had recovered to again set forth, assisted this time by Quirke, to south Kilkenny.
Passing through the area, Deasy and Quirke could not help but notice how many of the Anti-Treatyites there had been captured, forcing the pair to rely less on local guides and more on their own wits. They neared the house at Cloggan where they were due to meet Seán Lehane, the commander of the Wexford IRA, and almost walked into a trap.
End of the Road
Lehane and his staff had been arrested in a raid on their Wexford headquarters a few days earlier. Found on them were dispatches about the upcoming get-together at Cloggan. National Army soldiers were lying in wait when one of the few IRA officers still at large, Ted Moore, was able to warn Deasy and Quirke in time.
As they doubled back, Moore mapped out a route for the two others to take. On a bright moonlight night, the duo said their goodbyes to Moore before a boatman ferried them over the Suir River. After spending a night with one of Quirke’s friends in the area, they continued on to the Nire Valley in west Waterford. Free State patrols were by now a common threat and, while Quirke was hopeful that Moore would continue to do his bit, Deasy inwardly wrote off Kilkenny and Waterford.
They had reached the last stage of the return journey to Tincurry. Acutely aware of the dangers of discovery by one of the enemy search parties, Deasy and Quirke agreed to separate. Deasy retreated to a friendly house on a hillside of the Galtees and, worn out from the week of punishing cross-country travel, slept soundly.
Later, he would at least have the consolation that Quirke had managed to escape.
He was awoken by the owner of the house, who informed him that the building was surrounded by Free Staters, some of whom were already inside. It took a few seconds for this to sink in and then Deasy was aware of a green-coated figure at the foot of his bed with a revolver.
Ernie O’Malley had faced a similar choice when cornered in Dublin two months ago. Unlike O’Malley, Deasy decided against a shootout that could only end one way.
More soldiers entered. After giving their captive time to dress, they searched the room. A resigned Deasy looked on as they found the loaded revolver under his pillow and the spare rounds of ammunition inside his trousers’ pocket. Not a word was said or needed to be, as all of them, Deasy included, knew what this meant. At least he was allowed a cup of tea and slice of bread before being marched off to Cahir.
The subsequent court-martial on the 25th January passed by in a blur. Deasy remained mute as the charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm was read out by the prosecuting officer, who finished by asking for the maximum penalty. The court agreed, and the sentence of death was pronounced, to be carried out the following morning.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 279
Florence O’Donoghue was soon in despair over the attitude of many of his peers on the new Executive. Elected to provide leadership to those in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who opposed the Treaty, the Executive quickly developed divisions of its own, with O’Donoghue complaining at how:
The Executive never fused into an effective unit. It never had a common mind or a common policy. There was not time. Many matters, not strictly the concern of the Army, obtruded in discussion, social theories were aired and debated, projects were considered in an atmosphere of unreality, stresses developed which weakened the fabric of authority. Things were done and ordered to be done without knowledge of all the members, sometimes without Liam [Lynch]’s knowledge.
Seconding this dissatisfaction was Joseph O’Connor. As another member of the Executive, he found that its meetings “were often far from satisfactory and we seemed to be unable to reach decisions.” Confusion bred contempt, with the different groupings in the Executive undertaking their own actions without concern for their colleagues. “The Rory O’Connor [no relation] element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” he remembered dolefully.
Joseph O’Connor might have had in mind a press conference Rory gave on the 22nd March 1922, four days before the first of the IRA conventions, the holding of which, Rory said, signalled the repudiation of the Dáil’s authority. The interview’s main impact was Rory’s reply of “You can take it that way if you like” when asked if the Anti-Treatyites intended to set up a military dictatorship, a gaffe which dismayed even like-minded contemporaries.
O’Donoghue was among those unimpressed with Rory O’Connor’s antics:
How far his statements represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.
So what was Lynch’s policy? Even a friend like O’Donoghue did not seem sure. Lynch was in danger of becoming a spectator to his own command.
The occupation of the Four Courts in Dublin further exemplified this uncertainty. According to Ernie O’Malley, it was he and Liam Mellows who spearheaded the entering of the building by the IRA in the early hours of the 14th April 1922. Only later did Lynch join them. Other than selecting rooms for new offices once the site was secure, he seems to have played only a minimal role in the takeover
When Rory O’Connor was interviewed later that day by the Irish Times, he was referred to as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” It was not simply ignorance on the newspaper’s part, for while it was Lynch who held the title as Chief of Staff, others such as Rory O’Connor, Mellows or O’Malley could have laid equal claim to the status of leader at different times. The Anti-Treatyites had an abundance of chiefs at the expense of Indians.
Regardless of who was what, Lynch felt emboldened enough to write to his brother Tom four days after the seizure of the Four Courts, boasting that they had “at last thrown down the gauntlet again to England through the Provisional Government.” As far as he was concerned, this was not so much a feud between Irishmen but the latest step in the war against an ancestral foe.
A Closing of the Ranks
“I write this from the G.H.Q. Four Courts not knowing the hour we will be attacked by Machine Gun or Artillery,” Lynch wrote. He was not overly concerned for, as he explained to Tom, they had about 150 well-equipped men defending the buildings, along with the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA in the city and throughout the country they could call upon.
Not that Lynch thought he would need to do so: “I am absolutely certain that the Free State was sent to its doom by our action last week.” While he had his regrets, he was determined not to let them deter him from doing what he must do: “Sad it is to risk having to clash with our old comrades but we cannot count the cost.”
Others were not so sanguine about the potential costs of the direction their country was taking. On the 1st May, ten IRA officers met to agree that enough was enough. That half of this group were from the anti-Treaty wing – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales, Dan Breen, Seán O’Hegarty and Humphrey Murphy – and the rest were pro-Treaty – Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Seán Boylan – suggests that this was no spontaneous gathering but a carefully calculated gesture towards reconciliation.
With the aid of the Dáil Éireann Publicity Department, this group of ten issued a statement:
We, the undersigned officers of the IRA, realising the gravity of the present situation in Ireland, and appreciating the fact that if the present drift is maintained a conflict of comrades is inevitable, declare that this would be the greatest calamity in Irish history, and would leave Ireland broken for generations.
Thus, they said, a “closing of the ranks all round” was called for. But these men were not relying on rhetoric and good intentions alone. Also submitted were several suggested points on the best way forward:
An acceptance by both sides that the majority of the people were willing to accept the Treaty.
An agreed election with a view to:
Forming a government with the confidence of the whole country.
Army unification on that basis.
Rory O’Connor fumed, calling it a “political dodge, intended by the Anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” Others were similarly dismissive. Hales and Breen found that they had earned themselves the disdain of many of their IRA peers, with only their sterling records in the war against Britain stopping such critics from being too outspoken.
In contrast to O’Connor, Lynch – a reserved man by nature – kept his thoughts to himself. After all, two of the ten men, O’Donoghue and Hales, were close allies of his, having been pushed by him to be on the IRA Executive in the first place. While it is impossible to say with certainty if Lynch approved of their initiative, he proved willing to grasp at the chance presented by this show of solidarity.
The Chiefs Talk
And so Lynch sat down with Eoin O’Duffy in the Mansion House on the 4th May. There, the two Chiefs of Staff of their respective militaries – Lynch for the IRA, O’Duffy with the National Army – signed a pledge for a truce, set to last from 4 pm on the 5th until the same time on the 8th. While not an especially lengthy period, these four days would hopefully provide enough to explore a possible basis for peace – perhaps even the reunification of their forces.
Such hopes were almost stopped before they even began when Lynch presented his conditions at a subsequent meeting in the Mansion House on the 6th May:
The maintenance of an Irish Republic, meaning that the whole administration of the country, to be conducted by the Government of the Irish Republic.
That the IRA be maintained as the Army of the Republic under the control of an independent Executive.
A working arrangement to be entered into between the Government of the Republic and the Executive of the IRA.
This ‘independent Executive’ was presumably to be the anti-Treaty one already in place. Since Lynch had demanded all while conceding nothing, it is not surprising that hopes among the Free State command were deflated.
“On behalf of GHQ it could not be agreed that the memorandum put forward by Comdt. Lynch was a satisfactory basis from which to develop unification proposals,” read an internal review, adding gloomily: “Pending any political settlement it is felt that the question of Army unification cannot usefully be pursued further.”
Nonetheless, it was agreed to extend the truce and continue such talks in the future. Lynch showed that he was willing to give a little when he allowed for the evacuation of the Ballast Office on Westmoreland Street, occupied by the Anti-Treatyites since the 1st May.
Lynch was true to his word. A number of lorries parked outside the Ballast Office later that day for the removal of the sandbags, kitchen utensils and bedding back to the Four Courts. As the windows had been broken in the initial takeover in order to make way for the sandbags, the departing garrison thoughtfully left a guard on duty for the night to deter looters.
Rumours that the Kildare Street Club and the Masonic Hall would also be cleared of their IRA occupants proved unfounded, however. Instead, a lorry pulled up at each location in turn for men to emerge, carrying fresh sandbags – possibly the same ones taken from the Ballast Office – with which to further reinforce these positions. The Anti-Treatyites would only be led so far – for now.
Life in Ireland was increasingly subject to the whims and dictates of military apparatchiks who remained unaccountable and seemed unconcerned by what was convenient for anyone else. Further compounding this sense of helplessness was the policing vacuum. With the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary and no immediate replacement, civilians had little recourse to the gun-toting young men and their disturbingly casual attitudes towards private property.
“The epidemic of raids continues practically all over the Ireland,” read the Freeman’s Journal on the 16th May, reporting how storehouses, pubs, garages and post offices were all considered fair game. Cars in particular were prized spoils, and victims of such hijackings in Dublin would often need look no further than the Four Courts for their lost vehicles, where a collection of accumulated motors provided some diversion to garrison members who took them on rural excursions or around the city.
When a group of four such joyriders were passing through Lower Grafton Street, a British armoured automobile swung around the corner ahead, followed by a lorry full of troops not yet departed from the country. The Anti-Treatyites swerved to avoid the first vehicle, colliding instead with the lorry.
None of the passengers were hurt, and one of the IRA party even leapt out with his .45 Colt at the ready, only to find himself staring down the barrel of the machine-gun mounted on the enemy automobile. Deciding now that discretion was the better part of valour, the men dispersed into the gathering crowd of onlookers. Their mangled ride was left behind to be someone else’s problem.
As one of these men, Todd Andrews, candidly admitted: “It was not ours and we did not know or care who the owner was. Such was our frame of mind.” He attributed such solipsistic unconcern to the gnawing frustration he and his comrades felt at the political deadlock. They were soldiers without a war, in a country not at peace.
Certain Friendly Incidents
Both sides were eager to clamp down on such indiscipline. Progress had been made by the 26th May when Richard Mulcahy dispatched a note to Michael Collins, apprising him of the agreements reached so far between him and Lynch:
That there be no more commandeering of motors or of private property.
All motors previously taken by the “Four Courts people” be returned.
The restoration of people to their homes and property to be carried out at once.
All occupied buildings in Dublin to be evacuated at once.
A preliminary Army Council was due to hold its first meeting on the following day, the 27th May, to consider the question of unity of command.
The Cork Examiner caught wind of the new sense of optimism. On the 2nd June, it told of how a “cheery piece of news in the midst of much that is uncertain as that which can now be announced with practically official authority”:
…that a scheme for the unification of the IRA forces has been agreed upon certain definite lines…Certain friendly incidents which have recently taken place in Dublin and elsewhere give ground for high hopes of efficiency and camaraderie among the army.
Many of the anti-Treaty rank-and-file rejoiced at the possibility of a reunited Army, not least because it would allow them the same perks of regular pay and new equipment that their Free State counterparts enjoyed. A friend of Tom Hales noted how relieved and satisfied he appeared at having helped avert an internecine war.
Common Ground, Common Enemy
The talks also allowed Lynch and Collins to cooperate on another project, one kept well hidden from all but their carefully selected insiders. However much of a stumbling block the Treaty posed, it would not stop either man from looking at the bigger national picture, especially where the common foe was concerned.
With British soldiers still stationed in Ulster and the status of its pre-Partition counties an unresolved question, the two leaders covertly agreed to funnel arms, as well as manpower drawn from both their factions, to the Northern IRA for whom the War of Independence had never really ended.
Such an idea had been gestating for some time. Seán Mac Eoin had appeared to allude to such a possibility, during a pro-Treaty demonstration in Cork on the 13th March, when the Longford war hero –and a close confidant of Collins – expressed disappointment to see guns in the city. He knew of a place instead where they were wanted.
“To those people I say,” he said, “if they want a war, let them come along with me and they will get it.” Whether or not Mac Eoin had intended anything definite by that, there were soon moves to turn rhetoric into reality, albeit clandestinely.
Frank Aiken was to have command of these Ulster operations. The Armagh-based IRA leader had been straddling the Treaty divide, making him an acceptable choice of point man for both sides. This selection was confirmed when Seán Lehane, one of the Cork officers appointed to assist in this venture, was instructed by Lynch to take his orders directly from Aiken.
Conscious of the difficulties that Britain could still make should it decide to, Collins insisted on one particular clause: all munitions sent Northwards were to be supplied by the Cork brigades which were part of Lynch’s First Southern Division. These martial contributions would be remunerated by the National Army, courtesy of the British military, which was unaware as to where its donations to its new ‘allies’ were ending up – a detail that must have been especially pleasing to those involved. Should any of these guns fall into British hands, then only the avowedly anti-Treaty Cork IRA would be blamed, allowing Collins to claim plausible deniability.
Secrecy was, of course, paramount. While helping in the Four Courts as a clerk, Andrews was aware of the lorry loads of arms coming from the National Army headquarters at Beggar’s Bush. But he had no inkling of the reasons behind this strange exchange between nominal enemies, there being no paperwork and nothing said beyond gossip and rumours.
A New Army
Andrews was able to learn more about the talks for a reunited IRA when a copy of the minutes was sent to his office for filing. To his cynical eye, such notes were of little more than “fruitless discussion” between men who “never succeeded in agreeing.”
Despite what Andrews may have thought, by the 4th June negotiations had broken through to a drafting stage. At a meeting with Mulcahy and O’Duffy on one side, and Lynch and Seán Moylan on the other, plans for a hybrid GHQ were drawn up. O’Duffy was to remain Chief of Staff, with Lynch as Deputy Chief of Staff. The rest of the new Army Council would consist of Mulcahy, Florence O’Donoghue, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Seán Moylan, Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor.
Part of Lynch’s duties as Deputy Chief of Staff would consist of appointing the staff who would reorganise the new Army – no small task and a measure of the trust he was being invested in. Inefficient officers were to be dropped and personnel in general reset to what it was on the 1st December 1921, before the signing of the Treaty – nobody had any time for blow-ins who only signed up to fight when the fighting was already done.
The co-founders of the new Army-to-be were meticulous in their planning, taking care to account for tender feelings and nationalist sensitivities as well as the practical needs of forming a military. Among the points put down were:
“No man to be victimised because of honest political views.”
“The training syllabus shall be drafted as much with a view of giving men a Gaelic outlook as to making them efficient soldiers. A mercenary army must be avoided”.
“The Army shall not ordinarily be concerned with maintenance of law and order except in so far as all good citizens should be.”
“Ex-soldiers of others armies [namely, the British one] to be employed ordinarily only in a training or advisory capacity, only those whose record and character stands scrutiny to be employed (this rule not to apply to men who fought with us).”
For all the lofty talk and aspirations, the four planners were not naïve to the bitterness that would continue to lurk between the sides in the soon-to-be-buried divide. For the brigades and battalions too damaged to cooperate together, new officers were to be brought in to provide a fresh slate.
Particular care was taken in the constitution for the Army Council, elected at regularly held conventions. While the Minister for Defence would be appointed in the ordinary way by the Government, and he would in turn appoint his Chief of Staff, both men would require the approval by a majority vote of the Council.
When explaining – and, at the same time, defending – these proposals to the Dáil four months later in September, Mulcahy admitted that indulgences were not ideal. He certainly would not recommend any other fledgling state to organise its military on such liberal lines. But, given the circumstances, he had felt that such allowances had to be made.
Steps Forwards, Steps Back
Allowing the new Army Council freedom from civilian oversight would, of course, grant it no small amount of independence – and power. Mulcahy was aware of the tightrope he was walking when he wrote to O’Hegarty on the 6th June about the progress made:
I, meantime have created consternation amongst the Government by letting them know I have more or less agreed to an agreed Army Council, the majority of whom were more or less in arms against the Government until a day or two ago, and of whose attitude they have absolutely no guarantee.
Meanwhile, Lynch was facing the consternation from his own side. Not even the offer of a post on the Army Council could soothe the irascible Rory O’Connor, who had not budged from his conviction that anything short of completely rejecting the Treaty was tantamount to treason. On the 15th June, he and Ernie O’Malley sent a memo to Mulcahy about a resolution passed the day before by the Executive:
Negotiations for Army unification must stop.
Whatever necessary action to maintain the Republic would be taken.
No offensive will be taken against Free State forces.
The last promise must have been cold comfort to Mulcahy, who saw the painstaking work of the last two months in danger of being dashed asunder. For now, at least, he need not have worried. O’Connor’s and O’Malley’s attempted sabotage were the last-ditch attempts of desperate men feeling the ground slip from under them.
O’Malley was finding himself increasingly stonewalled by his Chief of Staff. He tried telling Lynch, in the latter’s Four Courts office, about how essential it was to work out a contingency plan in the event of an attack. Lynch demurred on the grounds that the negotiations would soon end to everyone’s satisfaction. Republican interests would be maintained on the new GHQ, and that was that.
O’Malley pressed the issue, citing a distrust of Mulcahy, but his superior officer held firm. Lynch did concede permission for O’Malley to inspect the layout of the Four Courts. O’Malley wrote up a plan of defence based on his observations but Lynch made no effort to implement it.
From Lynch’s perspective, there was no need to prepare for anything that was not going to happen. As he wrote to his brother Tom on the 1st May, he had the means to end the Free State by force if he so wished, “but we don’t mind giving it a slow death, especially when it means the avoidance of loss of life & general civil war.”
For now, the negotiations represented the best means to achieve the bloodless victory Lynch craved. By the end of May, Lynch announced to Tom that only a few wrinkles remained to be ironed out: “We have so far agreed a coalition Army Council which is now in complete control of army under chairmanship of Minister of Defence, but as yet we have not agreed on a G.H.Q. staff.”
Lynch felt like a man who could see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. “Since the truce has been a worse time on me than the whole war, every bribe & cunning plan has been put up to us but Thank God we pulled through to take once more free action,” he told Tom.
Such optimism – or indolence, depending on one’s point of view – was starting to have a detrimental effect on the rest of the Anti-Treatyites. Instructions to evacuate posts in Dublin, with a view to the Four Courts being included, convinced many that their Chief of Staff was weakening.
In the opinion of Tom Kelleher, a fellow veteran of the Cork IRA, Lynch had not been up to the task, allowing his forces to fragment into small, ineffective groups when they should have throttled the Free State at the start of 1922. But such boldness, or rashness, had never been Lynch’s way.
Kelleher and O’Malley should not have been surprised. Lynch had always been something of a priss where military hierarchy was concerned, according to Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade: “It was well known to me and to other Brigade officers that G.H.Q. was Sanctum Sanctorum to Liam, that the Chief of Staff was its High Priest.”
The two future anti-Treaty leaders had first met in an open field in Tipperary, in October 1920, to discuss the best ways of taking the fight to the British military. Robinson had found the talk a chore due to the other man’s leaden personality: “I felt that he ignored, if not deliberately supressed, as a waste of time and energy, his own sense of humour.”
When Robinson suggested they pool their military resources, Lynch was hesitant, lest such an initiative intrude on GHQ’s prerogatives. Robinson inwardly compared him to a Doctor of Divinity “refusing to write a thesis unless and until he had first got his Bishop’s imprimatur.”
It was thus entirely in character for Lynch to try and bring the sundered IRA back together. Unlike O’Malley or Rory O’Connor, he had taken no joy in defying his old comrades in GHQ. Nor had he ever stood out as a hardliner. “He evinced none of the fiery opposition to the Treaty,” wrote the Irish Times after his death, “which was shown by Cathal Brugha, Éamon de Valera, Liam Mellows and other members of the anti-Treaty party.”
Of course, the newspaper may have mistaken ‘low-key’ for ‘lukewarm’. But many of his own colleagues made that same assumption and distrusted Lynch accordingly. “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” wrote Liam Deasy, aggrieved at how he and Lynch found themselves cold-shouldered and dismissed as “well intentioned but failing in our stand to maintain the Republic.”
In truth, Lynch was as determined as anyone in his opposition to the Treaty. However, his methods were very different to the brashness of Rory O’Connor, the aggression from O’Malley and the snide asides by Robinson. Not for him the love of confrontation, the finger-pointing accusations of treason or the grandstanding.
Instead, compromise, cunning and diplomacy were to be his tactics – that is, if others would let him.
How well or long this GHQ innovation – with O’Duffy at its head and Lynch as his deputy – would have lasted is debatable. Any situation that kept the Treaty in place was a concession on Lynch’s part – his critics would have said a surrender – but he had no doubts that the long-run would favour him and the anti-Treaty cause. The so-called Free State would be broken from within and the remnants absorbed into a reborn Republican Army.
But Chief of Staff did not equate to dictator, and Lynch needed the latest IRA Convention, on the 18th June, to agree to his deal of an integrated GHQ. O’Malley took a dim view of the event, just as he disapproved of much of Lynch’s decisions. To him, all the Convention was going to do was distract from the pressing need to ready the IRA for a war he saw as inevitable. Any delays only provided time for their pro-Treaty opponents to prepare.
Others were of like mind. But, unlike O’Malley who seems to have been resigned to his belief that Lynch was leading them to ruin, one of them had a plan. It would not be the last time Tom Barry would be a spanner in Lynch’s works.
Sources differ as to the exact sequence of events on the 18th June 1922. The fullest version is Seán MacBride’s, from a notebook of his seized in Newbridge Barracks on July 1923. Here, the Convention of the year before, once again held inside the Mansion House, opened with Mellows reading out a report on the general situation since the last such gathering in May.
As soon as he was done, Barry proposed a resolution for an ultimatum to be delivered to the British soldiers still present in Ireland: depart within seventy-two hours or face a renewed war.
Tom Barry’s Motion
This took many of the attendees aback, as MacBride remembered. To those not entirely sure what was going on, it was explained to them, bit by bit from the other delegates, that this was the alternative to Lynch’s unification proposals, which had yet to be addressed. It was clear that Barry was intending to sink Lynch’s attempts at compromise with a shot beneath the bows.
(In the accounts by Deasy and O’Donoghue, who were also present, the proposal to unite the Army as per Lynch’s suggestion was raised first. According to Deasy, the motion was defeated in a show of hands by 140 to 115. Only then did Barry speak up. In O’Donoghue’s version, they did not get as far as a vote – the debate dragged on until Barry interrupted.)
Opposing Barry’s (counter?) motion was Lynch, Deasy, Moylan and the other moderates. While otherwise a hardliner, MacBride thought it unwise for Barry to have spoken without prior warning as it put otherwise sympathetic attendees in an awkward spot. Todd Andrews believed it to be the “daftest proposal yet conceived” but in the fevered atmosphere, it attained a certain sense to some.
Barry evidently thought that just delivering his proposition was enough and made no attempt to defend it, leaving Rory O’Connor to pick up the slack and argue for its merits. The rest of the proceedings were a blur to MacBride, though he did recall that there was a lot of oratory on display. “Speech-making undoubtedly seems to be one of our national failings,” he grumbled.
When Barry’s ultimatum was finally put to a vote, it was passed (by a couple of votes in MacBride’s version, by 140 to 118 in Deasy’s). Meanwhile, Deasy could see, from where he sat on the platform, men entering the hall under what he thought to be questionable circumstances.
Unpacking the Vote
It was obvious to Deasy that vote-packing was underway, and not in his side’s favour. According to him, it was later confessed that some twenty to thirty un-credentialed attendees had been admitted. Given how one moderate-leaning delegate, Florence Begley, was refused entry as he had not been at the previous convention in May – the doormen having photographs of those who had – it seemed that the lax security that Deasy spotted could be suspiciously selective.
(Begley would look back at the Convention with bitterness, saying that the Civil War could have been avoided had it not been for Barry – a bit of an oversimplification, as Lynch was opposed by many on the Executive as well.)
After another lengthy discussion, the demand for a revote was upheld. On this second attempt, Barry’s motion was lost (118 to 98 by Deasy’s count, 118 to 103 in O’Donoghue’s).
Rory O’Connor took defeat in bad grace, warning that he would leave if the unification program was brought forward. He was true to his word: when these proposals did indeed come up, he stepped off the platform and left the hall along with around half the other delegates, specifically those who had voted for Barry’s ultimatum.
MacBride followed to where Rory O’Connor, Mellows and Joe McKelvey were hurriedly conversing outside the hall. They informed the other delegates who had departed with them of their intention to hold a convention of their own inside the Four Courts the next day.
MacBride was instructed to go back inside and announce this to those remaining. “There was an absolute silence and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door” after doing so, he later wrote. “A few more delegates came out.”
MacBride’s participation was remembered more dramatically by Andrews and Deasy. In their versions, it was MacBride, not O’Connor, who urged the dissenting attendees to leave. Andrews recalled MacBride waving a .45 Colt automatic in the air as he shouted in his French accent: “All who are in favour of the Republic follow me to the Four Courts.”
Whatever the exact circumstances, one thing was all too clear – Lynch’s dreams of a peaceful solution and a reconciled IRA were dead in the water. He had sought to reunite the two factions but proved unable to either control or convince his own.
Despite the lax security on the doors, the drama inside the Mansion House did not become public knowledge. Six days later, the Cork Examiner felt compelled to address how:
All kinds of rumours continue to be in circulation concerning the present army position but, as has already been pointed out, no attentions should be paid to various, and in many cases, very wild statements that are to be heard throughout Dublin and many parts of the country.
The newspaper mentioned the Convention and how it was to consider the unification scheme, but provided no further information, only that “any decision will be awaited with general interest.”
By then, the Free State had managed to be better informed. “The proposals came before the Convention but it is understood they were not accepted,” deadpanned an internal National Army report.
Mulcahy would try to put a more muscular spin on things, later suggesting to the Dáil in September that it had been the GHQ which had turned down the proposals. The given reason was that the man due for a top post in the new Army had “a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the press” – a description that most closely matches that of Rory O’Connor – this being a step too far for the Provisional Government. It is clear, however, that the rejection came from the Anti-Treatyite end.
Lynch proved equally wrong-footed. He had no inkling that anything was particularly amiss when he and Deasy made their way to the Four Courts shortly after the Convention, intending to deal with the latest batch of rifles due to be sent up to Ulster.
They arrived to find the gates locked and a notice curtly informing that those who had voted against Barry’s war resolution would not be admitted. This exclusion had been ordered on the night of the 18th June, as soon as O’Connor and his party returned. O’Malley had dallied at the Mansion House, persuading the sentries to allow him back in only with difficulty.
Lynch and Deasy trudged back to break the news of this split-within-a-split. A meeting was quickly held in Barry’s Hotel where Lynch was confirmed as Chief of Staff for the remaining anti-Treaty forces. Lynch would later publicly state that he had not been Chief of Staff of the IRA since the Convention of the 18th June until resuming the post on the 29th. He presumably meant that he had not been Chief of Staff of the Anti-Treatyites in their entirety between those dates.
Joseph O’Connor would later give a slightly different version of events. Acting as chairman during the June Convention, he had – despite sympathising with Tom Barry’s motion – ensured that the revote was carried out fairly by making each delegate submit his vote in the presence of a representative from either side. The resulting turmoil that night left O’Connor a “physically sick and disgusted man,” worsened by how he suffered the indignity of also being barred from the Four Courts the next day.
Having failed to talk to someone in charge to explain his case, O’Connor left the Four Courts to join with his remaining colleagues, though the Executive procedures scarcely made this much easier: “After some trouble I got the necessary two signatures, with my own, to have the meeting called.”
As opposed to Deasy’s memoirs, in which Lynch discovered the Four Courts lockout first-hand, in O’Connor’s version Lynch only learnt of it from him. Lynch took the news badly: “Lynch refused to enter the Courts because of the scandalous order to which I have referred” – not that the occupants were likely to allow him to at that point.
Despite such anger, it was decided to do nothing for the moment. Even in the face of severe provocation, Lynch was not one to order anything rash.
O’Connor was leaving the meeting when he was approached by a contrite Mellows who urged him to return to the Four Courts. It took some persuading for O’Connor to do so but, upon arrival, he remonstrated with the garrison leaders on the insanity of having three separate armies in one city.
His words must have had an effect, for the chill between the two anti-Treaty factions thawed a little. Lynch and his loyal staff were allowed to attend meetings in the Four Courts, even while remaining at odds with its garrison. Still, it was something.
A New Break and a Fresh Start
The outside world remained largely oblivious to such dissensions. For all their dysfunction, the Anti-Treatyite leadership was able to keep a tight rein at least on its information. While the Cork Examiner reported how, on the 26th June, “a meeting of Army Officers giving allegiance to the Four Courts’ Executive was…conducted within the Four Courts,” it admitted that “no information relating to the object of the meeting or the matter under consideration was issued.”
Deasy was probably relieved to return to his native county of Cork. The demands of the First Southern Division, of which he was the O/C, had piled up in his absence, and Deasy settled down to deal with them in his office at Mallow Barracks. The days passed by in a blur of minutiae as he busied himself with his work. While Deasy could not entirely shake off the lingering sense of foreboding, he refused to seriously envision a war between men who had only months ago been brothers-in-arms.
It was a morning like any other on the 27th June when Deasy received a phone-call from Lynch, urging him to be on the first train back to Dublin. His interest piqued, Deasy reunited with Lynch at Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station, where his Chief of Staff told him that Mellows and McKelvey had asked to meet as soon as he arrived.
Lynch and Deasy went straight to the Four Courts, where they met the other two and talked together in a quiet room until shortly after midnight. Then they crossed over to the Clarence Hotel, where Lynch had made his latest headquarters. There, other members of Lynch’s staff were waiting expectantly.
Lynch announced that the schism between them and the Four Courts had been ended. If the Free Staters were to try anything, they would have to deal with a stronger, reunited IRA.
The End and the Beginning
As the meeting finished, Joseph O’Connor, who was also present, was informed by his adjutant that all the National Army soldiers had been confined to their barracks – an ominous sign. He passed this on to Lynch, who replied: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.”
The Free State general in question had recently been abducted by the Anti-Treatyites in retaliation for the detaining of some of their own. Other than telling O’Connor to pass this news on to McKelvey, Lynch did not seem overly concerned, not even when Mellows took him and Deasy aside to warn of an incoming attack on the Four Courts, probably before daybreak.
Someone high up the Provisional Government had leaked the plans, Mellows added. But he did not provide a name for his supposed source and so the other men dismissed this as scaremongering. Besides, both Lynch and Deasy were sceptical that Collins – who they both still considered a friend – would take such a drastic step. Deasy was so unconcerned, and so tired, that he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow in his room at the Clarence.
The next thing he knew, Lynch was shaking him awake, saying: “Do you not hear the shelling?”
For the past two hours, the National Army had been pounding away at the Four Courts with artillery. The unthinkable was already happening, and all the pair could do was sit in awkward silence, Lynch on the edge of Deasy’s bed, both too stunned to say a word.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 204-5 ; Irish Times, 13/03/1922
 MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 127-30 ; O’Donoghue, p. 246 ; Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 41-2 ; Andrews, pp. 225-6 ; O’Malley. The Men Will Talk to Me, pp. 174-5
O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)
O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
When peace came to Ireland on the 11th July 1921, it was sudden, unexpected and, for some in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), not entirely welcome.
Two days earlier, Liam Deasy, the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, had been in Togher, a parish south of Cork City, overseeing a staff meeting of the Dunmanway Battalion, one of the six that made up that IRA Brigade. Deasy was in the process of drawing up plans with the Dunmanway men when the schoolteacher, whose house they were using, rushed in with a copy of that morning’s edition of the Cork Examiner.
A Truce between the IRA and the Crown forces was announced, due to come into effect in a couple of days’ time. The news was received in stunned silence, each man struggling to take in the enormity of what he had heard. “No trace of emotion, not the slightest sign of enthusiasm, betrayed themselves in the reaction of my colleagues,” was how Deasy remembered the scene.
Attempting to sort out his feelings, Deasy believed he would have opposed such a détente – had it been up to him – unless a satisfactory outcome was guaranteed. Since he was under no illusion as to how much the British Government would be prepared to concede, the ceasefire could be no more than temporary, useful only as breathing space before the next step on the journey towards complete independence and the Irish Republic.
Still, Deasy was human enough to feel relief at the break in almost two years of life ‘on the run’ and the chance to move around freely without fear of arrest or death. But he was also concerned that such respite might prove problematic in terms of discipline. The same men who had stoically endured hardship and danger might not be so eager for more once the Truce ended and the war resumed.
Such were the thoughts and concerns swirling around Deasy’s head as he left Togher and travelled in a pony and trap towards Ballylickey, where he had made his latest Brigade headquarters. Accompanying him was Tom Barry, the famed flying column commander. When the two men reached Ballylickey, they found a dispatch waiting for them.
It was from Liam Lynch, the O/C of the First Southern Division and their superior officer. Both men were ordered to proceed to the Division Headquarters at the village of Glantane, to begin their new assignments, with Barry as the liaison officer with the British Army and Deasy to assist Lynch on the newly expanded Division staff. These instructions snapped the pair out of the fog of surprise, reminding them that their duty had not yet come to an end.
Preparing for the Next Round
Lynch often had this effect on people. “I was very impressed with Lynch,” recalled one contemporary. “He was always so meticulous about his appearance and dress… At the same time, he was a strong disciplinarian.”
Nothing exemplified this exacting attitude better than the days immediately following the Truce. Lynch allowed himself or his men no relaxation, estimating that he had at best three or four weeks, possibly six, within which to do six months’ worth of work.
When a house in Glantane became vacant, the First Southern Division HQ quickly moved in. Besides mealtimes, the only pauses in the workload came on Sunday evenings when Lynch would suggest a walk in the countryside. Anything more was out of the question. It would amount, as he wrote to his brother Tom, to a “National sin when there is work to be done” – and there was much to do.
A rare break, however unwillingly, came when he was arrested by a British patrol on the 18th August. A quick call to Dublin Castle was enough to secure his release and the continuation of the Truce. In the meantime, he had enjoyed chatting with the Black-and-Tans, jovially discussing with his captors the possibility of reacquainting with them on the battlefield.
Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.
As for the talks between President Éamon de Valera and the British Prime Minister, and the subsequent negotiations in London by the Irish Plenipotentiaries, Lynch and his staff had nothing more than a passing interest.
Even the offer of a promotion from Dublin only served to irritate Lynch. On the 6th December, Lynch wrote to Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defence, to turn down the offer of commander-in-chief. The reason given – “after serious consideration,” Lynch stressed – was such an elevation would put him too much under the thumb of the Cabinet, to the detriment, Lynch feared, of effective military work: “I feel that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff cannot do their duty when they are not placed in a position to do so.”
The current frustration was a case in point. “At the present moment when war may be resumed at short notice I have got no general direction,” Lynch complained to Brugha. Lynch was not to be led astray from his priorities.
That same day, Lynch was to receive news of another unwelcome distraction from the war with Britain: the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Plenipotentiaries. It did not take long for the First Southern Division to decide about it. At a meeting in Cork on the 10th December, four days after the signing, the Division staff unanimously adopted a resolution:
The Treaty as it is drafted is not acceptable to us as representing the Army in the 1st Divisional Area, and we urge its rejection by the Government.
The resolution was sent to Richard Mulcahy as the IRA Chief of Staff, with instructions for it to be forwarded to the Cabinet. Lynch signed it as ‘Liam Ó Loingisg’, along with the members of his staff (including Deasy) and, in an impressive display of solidarity, all the Officers Commanding (O/Cs) of the Division brigades – the five from Cork, the three from Kerry and the sole ones from West Limerick and Waterford.
According to Deasy, this resolution was a step not taken lightly, given the implied criticism of Michael Collins – one of the signatories of the Treaty – who Lynch and his Divisional colleagues otherwise held in high regard.
Nonetheless, Lynch could not have been completely surprised. Collins had warned him to that effect a month earlier in November 1921. In a session of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Parnell Place, Cork, Collins had taken Lynch and his closest aides, Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, aside for a private chat.
Given the impossibility for either military or diplomatic actions to achieve complete independence for Ireland, Collins told them, compromises would inevitably have to be made. Perturbed, Lynch asked Collins not to repeat such a thing in front of the others, lest things ‘blow up’ there.
In Dublin, a month later, on the 10th December, Lynch attended a conclave of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s ruling body. Two days afterwards, the Council issued a note to its adherents. For such a momentous decision, the instructions were surprisingly terse, saying only that the Supreme Council had decided that the Treaty should be ratified. However, those of the IRB who were also public representatives could act as they saw fit. That was all, for now.
For Lynch, this decision was a profoundly disappointing one. It had also alienated him from the rest of the Supreme Council. As he recounted in a letter to O’Donoghue on the 11th December: “The situation is I stood alone at the meeting I attended.”
As far as Lynch knew, the First Southern Division might also standing apart from the rest of the IRA. Nonetheless, the “position I have taken up I mean to stand by.”
“Too Much Gas”
Despite his bullish words, Lynch attempted to strike a pensive chord to O’Donoghue: “I do not recommend immediate war as our front is broken.”
Lynch suspected that the Treaty would be carried by a majority in the Dáil, in which case the minority would fall in line, a principle that must also apply within the Army “or we are lost.” For all his determination on behalf of the Irish Republic, it was the IRA and the threat to its cherished unity that was his immediate concern.
In regards to Collins: “I admire Mick as a soldier and a man. Thank God all parties can agree to differ.”
Lynch repeated his conciliatory tone towards Collins in a letter to his brother Tom, written on the 12th: “Sorry I must agree to differ with Collins, that does not make us worse friends.” Should the war with Britain be resumed, Lynch had no doubt that Collins would continue to do his part for Irish freedom.
Not that friendship lessened Lynch’s convictions one bit: “First of all I must assure you that my attitude is now as always, to fight on for the recognition of the Republic,” even if that meant fighting on by himself. Should the Government accept the Treaty, as it seemed likely, then he would bide his time until they could “strike for final victory at most favourable opportunity.”
Lynch was looking forward to the time when ‘war-war’ could take over from ‘jaw-jaw’: “Speeches and fine talk do not go far these days,” he grumbled. “We have already too much gas.”
“My God, It’s Terrible”
The Dáil debates over the Treaty began in Dublin on the 14th December 1921. Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue received invitations to attend and did so, even though none were Teachtaí Dála (TDs) and thus in no position to speak. Lynch might have been had he stood in the general election of the previous year, as requested by the East Cork Sinn Féin.
However, when no word of acceptance from Lynch was received, another man, Séamus Fitzgerald, was selected (and elected) instead. When Fitzgerald chanced upon Lynch during the Dáil debates, the latter said that he had never received the offer, but reassured Fitzgerald that he was quite happy that he had been the one elected.
Lynch was probably sincere in this, considering how little he thought of ‘speeches and fine talk’. The unedifying spectacle of “men who a few short months before were fighting as comrades side by side, now indulging in bitter recrimination, rancour, invective charges and counter charges” – as Deasy put it – was unlikely to have made him regret his missed opportunity in politics.
(They were not the only ones so disgusted. Todd Andrews, who would later be Lynch’s aide-de-camp, found the debates so dispiriting that he walked away, convinced that only the Army could salvage anything out of the mess that politics had made.)
At least Lynch had the opportunity while in Dublin to meet up with like-minded IRA officers. The house at 71 Heytesbury Street had long been used as a refuge for Volunteers on the run. Lynch had been nursed there through two illnesses. It was only fitting, then, for it to be the place of a reunion between him and Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows, all of whom, like Lynch, held senior positions in the IRA.
Lynch, O’Malley noted, “was square and determined looking. He tightened his pince-nez glasses and he muttered: ‘My God, it’s terrible, terrible.’”
Lynch was the first to break the sombre silence in the room. “I wish we knew what the other divisional officers thought and felt. That would make things easier.”
“Have you seen Collins?” asked O’Connor. “He was looking for you.”
“Yes, I have,” replied Lynch. “I met him and Eoin O’Duffy. They said the Treaty would give breathing space, allow the army to arm and equip, then we could declare war whenever a suitable opportunity came.”
“They mean to enforce the Treaty,” said a more sceptical O’Connor, “but we must organise.”
The chief problem, O’Malley said, was knowing who to trust. O’Connor was in favour of breaking away from the IRA GHQ control as soon as the Dáil debates were over. Nothing good could come from them or GHQ anymore. For now, they could rely only on each other. Robinson and O’Malley agreed. Mellows, in contrast, was content to wait, confident that, in any case, the IRA would never accept the Treaty, and that would be the end of the matter.
Short of a definite plan of action, the men could do little but agree to keep in touch before departing for the night.
Lynch kept to this wait-and-see attitude when he later met with Dan Breen, who urged for them to forget the Truce and resume the war with Britain at once. Seeing Lynch’s lack of enthusiasm, Breen left in a huff.
O’Malley had first met Lynch in September 1920 while visiting Co. Cork as part of his travels as a GHQ organiser. Then the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, Lynch had impressed him as quiet but commanding, with O’Malley accompanying him in the capture of Mallow Barracks.
But the two men never grew close, their relationship remaining a coolly professional one. This lack of shared sympathy would bedevil the Anti-Treatyites, hamstringing their attempts to coordinate effectively.
The mood amongst the anti-Treaty IRA had gone from bad to worse by the time Mulcahy summoned them for a sit-down in Banba Hall, Parnell Square, in January 1922. O’Malley was so suspicious that he went in with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat in case of arrest. Inside, the attendees sat in a semi-circle, the Anti-Treatyites to the right, their pro-Treaty counterparts on the left. Such self-segregation from the start did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.
When Mulcahy began by saying that the Free State intended to keep the name of the Republican Army, O’Connor cuttingly replied that a name did not make it so. Jim O’Donovan proceeded to call Collins a traitor. Collins leapt to his feet in fury amidst cries of ‘withdraw’ and ‘apologise’.
After Mulcahy restored some semblance of peace, he made a conciliatory suggestion: the Anti-Treatyites present could nominate two of their own to attend future GHQ meetings. When they withdrew to another room to talk this over, Lynch said he was in agreement. The others were not, preferring to make a clean break by setting up a command of their own, GHQ be damned, just as O’Connor had first suggested in Heytesbury Street.
Lynch stood his ground and threatened to go his own way. As the First Southern Division had the most manpower, controlled the most territory and was among the best armed, the other leaders had no choice but to back down. They had been cowed at the first challenge and by one of their own, something which none of them had anticipated.
Stalemated, the other Anti-Treatyites grudgingly agreed to give Mulcahy’s olive-branch a try. When they returned to a waiting Mulcahy to announce their decision, he was magnanimous enough to promise a convention for the IRA in two months’ time, where things could hopefully be straightened out for good.
As per Mulcahy’s proposal, O’Malley was selected as one of the Anti-Treatyites’ representatives. But O’Malley had little desire to be sitting in on meetings at GHQ, a body he had come to dismiss as an irrelevance at best, a hindrance at worst. Many of his peers were inclined to agree, prompting Lynch to do his utmost to prevent the widening gap between the anti and pro-Treaty factions from splitting into open warfare.
The first thing O’Malley did after his departure from Dublin was to call a meeting of the Second Southern Division. As their O/C, he placed the question of continued GHQ control to his brigades, of which one (East Limerick) was prepared to remain loyal, with the other four (Mid-Limerick, Kilkenny, Mid-Tipperary and South Tipperary) agreeing that the situation had become intolerable.
Secure in the backing of most of his Division, O’Malley henceforth ignored all calls to bring him back to Dublin, including the summons to his own court-martial when GHQ finally realised his desertion. To make the estrangement official, the Mid-Limerick Brigade issued a proclamation, headed ‘Republican of Ireland’, on the 18th February, which explained that since the majority of GHQ were attempting to subvert the Republic, the Brigade could no longer recognise its authority.
The dissenters were prepared to match their words with action. On the 7th March, the Limerick Chronicle informed its readers that “events in Limerick during the past couple of days have been rather significant, and in the minds of the citizens have created a certain amount of tension.”
Not that the citizens in question needed a newspaper to inform them of this. Two days before, IRA units from the GHQ-defying brigades entered the city and occupied a number of hotels as well as the disused wing of the District Mental Hospital – O’Malley, for one, appreciated the irony of that choice, given the state of the times.
King John’s Castle remained in pro-Treaty hands. O’Malley had planned to take the medieval fortification in a surprise night-raid with the connivance of a sympathetic member of the garrison who was to open the gates to them at 11:30 pm. By 1 am, the inside man had yet to appear and O’Malley, fed up with waiting in the cold rain, allowed his sodden men to retire.
At least the Anti-Treatyites had the comforts of bed and board that their hotel strongpoints provided. A second proclamation was sent to the Limerick Chronicle on the 9th March, explaining further the reasons for the occupation.
Mulcahy was blamed for refusing to allow them to occupy the barracks recently vacated by the Crown forces, sending instead officers chosen on account of their loyalty to GHQ rather than to the Republic: “He seeks to ensure that no matter how the coming IRA Convention decides, the Provisional Government will hold all areas for the Free State Party.”
To prevent such opportunism, the Anti-Treatyites of Limerick had brought in their comrades from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Kerry, Waterford and Galway. The city had rapidly become a microcosm of the Treaty divide.
O’Malley felt Limerick was secure enough to briefly visit Dublin to meet Rory O’Connor – not, significantly, Lynch – and apprise him of the situation. O’Connor was encouraging but otherwise refused to commit himself, preferring instead, to O’Malley’s annoyance, to watch how things unfolded.
Meanwhile, Mulcahy and O’Duffy had travelled to Limerick on a mission of their own. The former had by then been promoted to Minister of Defence, with the latter stepping in his shoes as Chief of Staff. That two such senior figures had been sent showed how seriously the Provisional Government was taking the matter. Invites for anti-Treaty officers to meet with Mulcahy and O’Duffy in the Castle were declined, and the two GHQ men returned to Dublin with things as frayed as before.
Within the Provisional Government, President Arthur Griffith was advocating a firm line, having come to believe that war was inevitable. In the only formal speech to the Cabinet that one witness, Ernest Blythe, remembered him making, Griffith argued that as they were now a government, with all the accompanying responsibilities, they had a duty to assert their authority.
Collins, on whom the final decision rested (Blythe had no doubt about that), looked inclined to agree. Mulcahy then intervened, as Blythe recalled:
Mulcahy apparently had a great belief in Liam Lynch and a great confidence that he understood him and could rely on him, and he put forward the proposal of handing over the Limerick barracks to Liam Lynch, who would hold them at the disposal of the Government, subject to certain considerations.
Relieved at finding a way to avoid conflict with his old comrades, Collins accepted the suggestion, much to Griffith’s annoyance.
On the 11th March, the citizens of Limerick learned “with intense relief”, in the words of the Limerick Chronicle, that a settlement had been reached. Although the newspaper did not know it, Lynch had taken the step of visiting the city to meet with officers of either faction, together and individually.
O’Malley gave no details in his memoirs, but whatever Lynch said was sufficient. Both sides pulled back from the brink and agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the city. The military barracks was to be in the hands of Pro-Treatyites until the building was entrusted to those local IRA units who had remained neutral during the manoeuvrings of the week before. Ironically, the last pro-Treaty men to leave the city were of the East Limerick Brigade, the only one in O’Malley’s Division to stay with the GHQ.
The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.
A month later, Lynch felt enough had been said about the Limerick flashpoint for him to set the record straight in a letter to the newspapers on the 27th April: “I have always avoided publicity, but my name has been brought forward so much recently that I am reluctantly forced to deal with the matter.”
For all the stated disdain for attention, Lynch was determined that he receive his due credit. It was less for his own sake and more to deny unearned plaudits claimed by others:
Regarding the statement by Beggar Bush’s Headquarters [GHQ] to the effect that they had done everything for unity in the Army, and that the other side had done everything possible to break it, I am sure all officers of high command in the Free State forces can verify my emphatic assertion that no officer did more than myself to maintain a united Army.
“It was a happy consummation for me to see about 700 armed troops on either side who were about to engage in mortal combat, eventually leave Limerick as comrades,” Lynch continued.
‘Comrades’ may have been an overstatement – O’Malley, for one, had threatened to arrest the dawdling officer in charge of the East Limerick men if they did not hurry up and scram. But, as the Anti-Treatyites had been planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the Castle as a prelude to storming inside, ‘mortal combat’ had indeed been avoided.