Shadows and Substance: Seán Mac Eoin and the Slide into Civil War, 1922

In the Interests of the Country

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Seán Mac Eoin

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.[5]

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.[6]

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National Concert Hall, site of the former National University where the Treaty debates took place

‘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.

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Seán T. O’Kelly

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.[7]

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.

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Kathleen O’Callaghan

Although O’Callaghan insisted this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult (not wholly convincingly), 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.[8]

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.[9]

That Gang of Mine

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Dan Breen

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?[10]

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.[11]

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.”

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Men of an IRA Flying Column

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.[12]

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Pro-Treaty poster

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.”[13]

Machinations

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.

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Éamon de Valera

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.”[14]

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).[15]

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.[16] 

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.[17]

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Michael Collins

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.

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Richard Mulcahy

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.”[18]

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.”[19]

For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.

Securing Athlone

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.

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Athlone Bridge over the Shannon River

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.

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British soldiers leaving Ireland, 1922

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.

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British soldiers lowering the Union Jack in Dublin Castle, 1922

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.

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Interior of Athlone Castle

“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.

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Illustration of the siege of Athlone, 1691, by artist William Barnes Wollen

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.

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Athlone Castle

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.

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Seán Mac Eoin, surrounded by his officers, raising the tricolour after Athlone Barracks

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.[20]

Maintaining Athlone

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.

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Free State soldiers on parade

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.[21]

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.

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

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.[22]

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Arthur Griffith

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.[23]

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.

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Anti-Treaty men leaning out of a window in Sligo, 1922 (full video on YouTube)

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.

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IRA men, standing to attention outside a hotel entrance

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.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sligo

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.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers onboard an armoured car with a machine-gun

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.

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Seán Mac Eoin addressing the crowd in Sligo from a window (note the pistol in hand)

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.

Arthur Griffith addresses an election meeting in Sligo Town, 1922
Arthur Griffith addresses the crowd in Sligo town square, April 1922

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.[24]

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Footage of Seán Mac Eoin helping to clear the road (full clip on YouTube)

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.

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George Adamson

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.”[25]

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.”[26]

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.[27]

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.

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George Adamson’s funeral passing through Athlone

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.

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IRA fighters, all in civilian dress

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.[28]

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.[29]

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.

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Free State soldiers outside Kilkenny Castle, where the Anti-Treatyites had held out in a last stand before surrendering, May 1922

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.

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Éamon de Valera

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.

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Seán Mac Eoin

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.”[30]

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.”[31]

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.

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Harry Boland

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.

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Kathleen Clarke

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.”[32]

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.

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The military leaders meet at the Mansion House, May 1922. From left to right: Seán Mac Eoin (in uniform), Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows (video on YouTube)

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.[33]

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.[34]

Pointing Fingers

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.[35]

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Rory O’Connor

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.[36]

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.

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Free State poster, denigrating the Anti-Treatyites as latecomers in the previous war against Britain

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.

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St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford

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.

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The newly-weds (video on YouTube)

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.[37]

Or perhaps not.

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Seán Mac Eoin on his wedding day with Alice Cooney

A Return to Sligo

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Joseph Sweeney

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.[38]

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.

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Anti-Treaty poster from the Civil War

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.[39]

Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, 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

[2] 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

[3] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 23-4

[4] Seán Mac Eoin Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P151/80

[5] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?, p. 11

[6] Irish Times, 20/12/1921

[7] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 134

[8] Ibid, p. 314

[9] Irish Times, 09/01/1922

[10] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/79

[11] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 168

[12] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/124

[13] Ibid, P151/162

[14] Irish Times, 27/08/1921

[15] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1786

[16] Ibid, P151/1835

[17] Ibid, P151/1837

[18] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 424-5

[19] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), p. 235

[20] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/131

[21] Ibid, P151/1809

[22] Ibid, P151/1812

[23] Sligo Independent, 15/04/1922

[24] Ibid, 22/04/1922

[25] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[26] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[27] Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[28] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922, 05/05/1922 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 375

[29] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[30] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), p. 368

[31] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[32] Ibid, P151/1813 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[33] McDonnell, Vera (BMH / WS 1050), pp. 9-10

[34] Irish Times, 10/05/1922

[35] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1804

[36] Ibid

[37] Longford Leader, 24/06/1922

[38] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 287

[39] Sligo Independent, 08/07/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

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)

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

University College Dublin Archives

Seán Mac Eoin Papers

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Sligo Independent

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

Bureau of Military History Statement

McDonnell, Vera, WS 1050

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The Chains of Trust: Liam Lynch and the Slide into Civil War, 1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: The Limits of Might: Liam Lynch and the End/Start of Conflict (Part I), 1921-2

The Fabric of Authority

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.[1]

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Rory O’Connor

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.[2]

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.[3]

Reasonable Uncertainty

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.[4]

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[5]

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The Four Courts, Dublin

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.[6]

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.

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The three Lynch brothers, left to right: Father Tom Lynch, Brother Martin Lynch and Liam Lynch

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.”[7]

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.[8]

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Liam Lynch

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

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Eoin O’Duffy

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.[9]

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.”[10]

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.

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Westmoreland Street, Dublin

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.[11]

Criminal Epidemic

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.

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IRA men in Grafton Street, Dublin

“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.

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A Rolls-Royce Armoured Car, of the type commonly used by British forces

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.[12]

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Junction of Grafton and Nassau Streets, where the collision took place

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.[13]

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.[14]

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Tom Hales

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.[15]

Common Ground, Common Enemy

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Michael Collins

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.

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Frank Aiken

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.[16]

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.[17]

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Beggar’s Bush, Dublin, headquarters to the pro-Treaty armed forces

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.”[18]

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.

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Group photo of pro and anti-Treaty IRA officers together – (left to right) Seán Mac Eoin, Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows

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.[19]

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Richard Mulcahy

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.[20]

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.[21]

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:

  1. Negotiations for Army unification must stop.
  2. Whatever necessary action to maintain the Republic would be taken.
  3. No offensive will be taken against Free State forces.[22]

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.

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Ernie O’Malley

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.[23]

Slow Death

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Liam Lynch

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.”[24]

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.”[25]

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.[26]

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.[27]

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.[28]

Sanctum Sanctorum

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Séumas Robinson

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.”[29]

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.”[30]

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.”[31]

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.

Ultimatum

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.

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Richard Mulcahy inspecting a parade of the National 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.0540

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.

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Florence O’Donoghue

(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.

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Tom Barry

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.”

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Seán MacBride

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.”[32]

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.

Locked Out

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.”[33]

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.[34]

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.[35]

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Pro-Treaty poster

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.[36]

Next Steps

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.[37]

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Barry’s Hotel, Dublin

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.

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Liam Mellows

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.[38]

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.”[39]

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Liam Deasy

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.[40]

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.

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Clarence Hotel, Dublin

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. For a short while, 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.[41]

To be continued in: The Fog of Certainty: Liam Lynch and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part III)

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National Army soldiers attack the Four Courts

References

[1] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 230

[2] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), p. 10

[3] Irish Times, 23/03/1922 ; Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 233

[4] O’Donoghue, p. 219

[5] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 88-91

[6] Irish Times, 15/04/1922

[7] Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 36,251/26

[8] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7/B/192/34-5 ; O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 63

[9] Irish Times, 05/05/1922

[10] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/251

[11] Irish Times, 08/05/1922

[12] Andrews, pp. 241-2 ; Freeman’s Journal, 16/05/1922

[13] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/219

[14] Cork Examiner, 02/06/1922

[15] O’Donoghue, pp. 63-4

[16] 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

[17] Andrews, pp. 238-9

[18] Ibid, pp. 237-8

[19] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/162-4

[20] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[21] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/233-4

[22] Ibid, P7/B/192/54

[23] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 100-2

[24] Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/27

[25] Ibid, MS 36,251/28

[26] Ibid, MS 36,251/27

[27] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, p. 109

[28] MacEoin, p. 230

[29] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 103-6

[30] Irish Times, 11/04/1923

[31] Deasy, p. 40

[32] 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

[33] Cork Examiner, 26/06/1922

[34] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/192/158

[35] Irish Times, 13/09/1922

[36] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, p. 110

[37] Deasy, p. 42 ; Cork Examiner, 01/07/1922

[38] O’Connor, pp. 6-7

[39] Cork Examiner, 26/06/1922

[40] Deasy, pp. 43-4

[41] Ibid, pp. 45-7 ; O’Connor, p. 10

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

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)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

National Library of Ireland Collection

Liam Lynch Papers

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

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

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

A New Voice

“It is difficult for us at present to visualise the circumstances under which this Convention was held,” so the Monsignor Michael J. Curran recounted in later years about the Plunkett Convention that took place on the 19th April 1917. The closest thing Ireland had had to a ruling party since the days of Parnell, the Irish Parliament Party (IPP), was a spent force by then, drained and discredited, but who or what would take its place was by no means certain.

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Count Plunkett

The most visible alternative for the moment was George Noble Plunkett. The 66-year old Papal Count had been better known in the past as a celebrated art scholar whose comfortable life of genteel indolence, along with much else in the country, had been upturned in the Easter Week of 1916. His eldest son had been executed for his part in the Rising, the other two imprisoned, and himself stripped of his National Museum directorship and exiled to England.

The wheel had turned yet again upon his election in January 1917 to the parliamentary seat of North Roscommon. Plunkett had not even needed to be present for the most part – he only returned to Ireland in the last few days before polling – with most of the work being done by an impromptu alliance of groups and individuals, united in their frustration at the political stagnation. Much had been promised by the IPP in the form of Home Rule, and yet Ireland was as much an unwilling ward of the British Crown as ever.

Immediately after his election, the Count had transformed from a respectable gentleman to a firebrand as he lambasted the failings of the IPP while half-promising, half-predicting a cleansing of the country’s woes with the certainty of a Biblical prophet. That attempts had been made, almost certainly by the IPP, to discredit him only inadvertently confirmed his status as standard-bearer of the new movement. Yet not everyone could look at the Count and agree with such elevation.

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Police reports to Dublin Castle, while noting the apathy that gripped the Irish Party, commented on how “the Count as a party leader does not appear to inspire enthusiasm.” In that, the police, and many of Plunkett’s so-called allies, were unknowingly in accord.

Clouding matters further was there had been no elections, either for Parliament or local government bodies, since before the start of the war in Europe. These public bodies were left with men (they were invariably men) who did not necessarily speak for their constituents anymore, particularly the young, who had gone through such a dramatic transformation in the wake of the 1916 Rising. What opposition there was in Ireland to the IPP or British rule was unfocused, fragmentary and, as often as not, at odds with each other.

If nothing else, the convention called by Count Plunkett was the first attempt to voice the new feeling in the country and hear what it had to say. If it could somehow smooth over the differences in the various opposition groups as well, then so much the better.[1]

Who’s Who

Differentiating these factions was not always easy, for in their hostility to the IPP and the desire to break the British connection, they could often appear indistinguishable to each other. Nonetheless, several distinct strands of thought could be discerned from the morass of post-1916 feeling:

  • Sinn Féin, as envisioned by its founder, Arthur Griffith, with a preference for constitutional methods.
  • Sinn Féin but remoulded on more Republican lines, an option popular among those who had fought in the Rising.
  • The Liberty Clubs, set up by Count Plunkett as a hard-line alternative.[2]

Another group was the Irish Nation League. Formed in Derry in July 1916 as an anti-Partition lobby. It had spread from the Ulster counties to the rest of the country, holding a rally in Dublin in September which had been attracted considerable attention. But that had been the high point for the League. Now it was stagnating for lack of drive and a failure to secure the newly popular radical ground. The League’s mistake had been to try and replace the Irish Party at the time when the IPP was a failed model.[3]

Of these bodies, the Liberty Clubs were the most recent, being formed from May 1917 while riding the momentum of the Plunkett Convention from the month before. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, was the oldest and enjoyed the benefits of being an already established name. It was perhaps only fitting that the two men at the heads of these two groups, Plunkett and Griffith respectively, should be at loggerheads from the start.

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Arthur Griffith

They stood on the opposite ends of the Nationalist spectrum, the Count demanding immediate action, against a more cautious Griffith. But there were times when the animosity spilled from the strictly political to the unpleasantly personal. According to the Count’s daughter, Geraldine, in her not-unbiased memoirs, Griffith had written “several savage letters”, accusing him of making political capital out of his dead son, to which the Count had managed to reply “with his habitual courtesy.”[4]

At the Plunkett Convention, however, its namesake would prove to be the aggressive one, attempting what amounted to a hostile takeover of Sinn Féin, forcing Griffith on the defensive.

‘Sinn Féin’?

Their initial point of contention was absentionism. The Count knew exactly where he stood there: he would not under any circumstances take his seat for North Roscommon at Westminster. As well as making this publicly clear, he expected his allies to commit to the same principle. At a meeting in Plunkett’s house in February, the trade unionist William O’Brien voiced his concerns that taking such a definite stand so soon would risk alienating the wider Irish public. He was taken aback when Griffith, who was also present, agreed.[5]

O’Brien had reason to be surprised, for Griffith had long pioneered absentionism as a means of separating the country from Britain. For this, Geraldine and her brother Joseph – the future 1916 signatory – had admired him, along with his “fine historical sense….and policy of self-reliance” for Ireland. But in the new post-Rising country, Griffith’s position was more tenuous than he cared to admit.[6]

‘Sinn Féin’ had been popularised, in one of those quirks of history, by the British authorities who had labelled the Irish Volunteers as such due to the perception of the actual Sinn Féin as a quixotic cause. The journalist Darrell Figgis remembered how the pre-1916 Sinn Féin “was a title of opprobrium. It was a title of a small minority, considered to be more noisy than numerous, expostulant but powerless.”[7]

This was a view shared by Seán T. O’Kelly, who estimated that Sinn Féin, of which he was a joint-honorary secretary, had had no more than a hundred members in Dublin before the Rising.[8]

And now – what a difference! Sinn Féin Clubs were everywhere, with affiliation fees pouring into the head offices of 6 Harcourt Street, allowing Griffith the luxury of keeping two paid organisers on the road. That the front-page header of the Nationality (the latest newsletter of his) bore the subtitle ‘edited by Arthur Griffith’, the first time his name had been so displayed, showed how much of an asset his name had become.[9]

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Sinn Féin headquarters, 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

And it had been thanks to Dublin Castle’s misnomer of the Easter Rising as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ that it was now the leading political brand in Ireland. This was despite Sinn Féin having had nothing to do with the insurrection, a misunderstanding that Griffith was in no hurry to correct, much to the annoyance of those who had actually been involved in the fighting and were resentful of his piggybacking on their efforts.

Besides, Griffith was seen as far too moderate for their tastes. In Count Plunkett, they saw a more agreeably hard-line totem around which to rally.[10]

Traveler Digital Camera

The Game of Politics

Some disdained the use of politics altogether. In Frongoch Camp, those prisoners who were initiates in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) held a series of meeting to determine their future course of action. At one, attended by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, it was agreed that, upon being freed, they would bring the IRB into the realm of politics in order to best serve the national cause. After all, news from Ireland told of how the IPP was weak and their own popularity strong, so the time seemed ripe to replace the old establishment with one more in tune with their aims.

One IRB member, Eamon T. Dore, had not been invited to this particular meeting, which he attributed to a falling-out he had had with the increasingly influential Collins. In any case, Dore did not approve of the decision, fearing that the IRB would be enmeshed with the usual intrigue and compromise of politics.

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Frongoch Camp

Dore met with Mulcahy and another Frongoch alumni/IRB member, Michael Staines, in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, after their release. It was February 1917 and the North Roscommon by-election was underway. Mulcahy persuaded the other two to come with him to Griffith’s house in the North Strand, as he wanted his advice on what to do next. Evidently a generous man with his time, Griffith told them that, in his opinion, they should focus on bringing Ireland’s case to the Peace Conference, set to be held in Paris after the war in Europe was over.

This was not to Dore’s liking. He argued that if Britain won the war, it would never give Ireland a fair chance and, if it lost, well, then it would be in no position to tell them what to do anyway. To Dore, this exchange was symptomatic of the sort of woolly thinking that was all too common amongst men like Griffith.[11]

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Rory O’Connor

Even those willing to lend a hand in the political arena disdained those who were too involved. Laurence Nugent had helped organise the Plunkettite campaign in North Roscommon. He was close to Rory O’Connor, one of the few Rising leaders who had escaped imprisonment. For his part, O’Connor was working both on the Count’s behalf and in helping to reorganise the Irish Volunteers. Through O’Connor, Nugent witnessed the attitudes of many who adapted to the new political landscape while remaining contemptuous of it.

“We were not politicians, although we were now well initiated into the game of politics,” was how Nugent put it. The politicians were a different breed: “They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines,” preferring instead the passive resistance espoused by Sinn Féin.

Nothing could have been further from the minds of those like O’Connor who were using the period of calm to prepare for the next round in the fight against Britain, one that would not be confined to Dublin but with the whole of Ireland as its battlefield. As O’Connor had said of his men when he saw that the Rising was doomed: “Send them home. We shall want them again.”[12]

Keeping it in the Family

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Thomas Dillon

While waiting for the resumption of war, O’Connor was hard at work arranging the Plunkett Convention for April. He was helped in this by Thomas Dillon, the Count’s son-in-law. Dillon had married Geraldine on Easter Sunday 1916, following which the newlyweds had watched from their hotel balcony on Sackville Street as her brothers marched up towards the General Post Office (GPO) at the head of their men to begin the Rising. When Geraldine asked to help inside the GPO, it was O’Connor who was sent out to turn her away on Joseph’s behalf.[13]

O’Connor was also romantically involved with a Plunkett daughter, and had worn throughout that turbulent week in Dublin a holy medal in his pocket, given to him by Fiona Plunkett. He would remain on close terms with the family up until his execution in the Civil War. According to Nugent, Josephine Plunkett, the Count’s wife, acted as go-between for O’Connor while he was occupying the Four Courts in 1922, as “speaking to her was the same as speaking to Rory.”

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Rory O’Connor with the Count’s son, Jack and George

He and Fiona never got as far as marriage, with Geraldine describing their romance as a “very frustrating” one for her sister. Nugent, as O’Connor’s friend, put it more delicately: “the bullet that killed him in Mountjoy affected the life of a lady member of a great Irish family.”[14]

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Michael Collins

Another budding revolutionary leader who benefitted from the support of the Plunketts was Michael Collins. Geraldine first met him when he was a “very tired young man”, newly arrived from London. He was put to work handling their rent books, answering official letters and filing away papers. Collins took lunch with the Plunketts and quickly made an impression, at least on Geraldine, in whose opinion: “no one ever had a better clerk.”[15]

(Not every member of the family had such a fond image of the Big Fella. Eoghan Plunkett, Geraldine’s nephew, remembered the future hero as a “pup, a nasty piece of work.” Among his sins was avoiding the living-room carpet in favour of the bare part of the floor in order to make more noise. However, Eoghan would not have been born then and his stories are second-hand).[16]

Michael Collins

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

Under Collins’ supervision, the muddled financial books began to take some semblance of order (no one in the family could be accused of being too worldly). But Collins did not intend to shuffle papers and juggle sums forever. He had been recommended to Joseph by the IRB in London, of which Collins had been a member, and he continued to act in that capacity in Dublin, helping Joseph to organise the embryonic uprising while serving as his bodyguard in a measure of the growing trust between them.[17]

Collins became a common sight on the family property at Larkfield, south-west of Dublin. The Volunteers who were based there would see him passing as they churned out shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades in preparation for the coming insurrection. He impressed them with his “sense of hurry and earnestness,” while causing annoying with his brusqueness and amateurish attempts to instruct them in their work.[18]

Collins’ lack of tact did not seem to have improved by the time of the North Roscommon by-election at the start of 1917. “The reactions of many being that he was a typical Corkman – some people thought he was a pusher [as in pushy] – and he was resented at that time,” according to William O’Brien, who met Collins while they were both assisting in the Plunkett campaign.[19]

On the other hand, another canvasser, Kevin O’Shiel accredited Collins – along with Griffith and Father Michael O’Flanagan – with the smooth running of the election by convincing his more bellicose colleagues of the gains to be had through the electoral process.[20]

Collins’ influence was such that many observers attributed the rise of the Liberty Clubs not so much to Count Plunkett but to him and the IRB. To Richard Walsh, a future TD and a member of the IRB himself at the time, the Clubs were “the public or outward expression” of the IRB which sponsored the Clubs in order “to give public expression and support to the IRB’s policy of physical force.”

Certainly, the militant philosophy espoused by the Clubs was in line with the IRB’s. Furthermore, as Walsh described, “Collins’ position as Secretary to Count Plunkett meant that he was acting as Secretary of the Liberty Clubs.”[21]

Dillon also linked the growth of the Clubs to Collins and the IRB:

The Liberty Clubs proposed by Count Plunkett were being founded, probably [emphasis mine] under the aegis of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Michael Collins had begun to reorganise throughout the country immediately after his release from internment in Frongoch, at the end of 1916.[22]

The use of word ‘probably’ indicates that not even the Count’s son-in-law was entirely sure what was going on.

Not so easily impressed was Dore, whose account of how he and Collins came to the Plunkett Convention puts the latter in a different light to the near-omniscient mastermind as he is often portrayed. Collins, Dore, Staines and some others were hanging about Dublin one lazy afternoon when they heard there was something going on at the Mansion House. Arriving late, they were only allowed in because Dore knew one of the doormen.[23]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Union of Advanced Thought

Delegates from the various public bodies throughout Ireland arrived at the Mansion House on the 19th April as per the instructions sent out by Count Plunkett. Admission tickets were checked at the doors by members of the Irish Volunteers acting as stewards, a sign of how the closely the new radical politics and the military men were in concord.

The large number of female attendees was notable, as were those from the younger male generation, politics in Ireland previously being the reserve of elderly or middle-aged men. Even the Freeman’s Journal, an organ of the IPP and thus a bitter critic of the Count, recognised that something exceptional was taking place with its headline NATIONALISM – NEW STYE – COUNT PLUNKETT’S “UNION” OF ADVANCED THOUGHT.

In keeping with the mood of the country, Sinn Féin badges were conspicuously displayed throughout the hall. Rousing cries of “Up Sinn Féin” greeted Count Plunkett as he made his way on the platform to take the chair. The callers may not have done so had they known what the Count truly thought of Sinn Fein and Griffith, and vice versa.

Plunkett began by thanking his guests for attending, particularly those who had had to travel from great distance. He then asked for a vote of commemoration to be made: “That this assembly, at its first meeting, desire to honour the memory of the men who have died for Ireland.”

The audience stood in respect as the vote was passed. The second request was also accepted without condition: “In honour of those who faced death for Ireland and who are now in prison as felons, and those men and women who had been exiled.”

Unstated, but palatable, was the knowledge that among these said men were members of the Plunkett family: Joseph, executed before a firing squad, Jack and George, both sentenced to lengthy penal sentences, and their father, the Count himself, banished to England until two months ago. After all, as Griffith had cruelly (if not altogether inaccurately) said, Plunkett had built a fine career out of such loss.

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Joseph and the Count Plunkett

A Free-Souled Nation

Count Plunkett said he would not insult these captives in question by asking for their release, insisting instead that they should be treated as prisoners of war. These men should be paid at least the same respect that a German or any other foreign POW would be treated, instead of degraded with the status of criminals.

“It is an honour,” a voice interrupted from the assembly. Plunkett said that he knew that these men took it as such and that they were prepared to suffer accordingly but – in a statement that was especially meaningful coming from him – “we should not suffer it for them.”

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George and Jack Plunkett upon surrender, 1916

After the resulting applause had died down, Plunkett congratulated his audience and Ireland upon the occasion of this great and representative gathering. It was hard to realise that this was the first free assembly of Irishmen on their own soil for many a century (cheers). It was the one of the first assemblies in the history of the country in which the leading note was a disregard for all aliens (cheers).

“In your name,” continued the Count, warming to his theme, “I made a series of declarations which you can assent by standing up. They are that –”

  • We proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation.
  • We assert Ireland’s right to freedom from all foreign control, defying the authority of any foreign Parliament to make laws for the country.
  • We affirm the right of the Irish people to declare their will in law, and enforce their decisions in their own land.
  • To maintain the status of Ireland as a distinct nation, we demand representation at the coming Peace Conference in Paris.
  • It is the duty of those nations taking part in the said Conference to guarantee the liberty of small nations like Ireland.
  • Our claim to complete independence is founded on human right and the law of nations.
  • We declare that Ireland has never yielded in our power to attain complete liberty.

Each of these declarations was greeted with hearty cheers and the standing in assent by all those present. Further capturing the mood were the two women who, after the lunch break, draped a tricolour over Plunkett’s table on the podium, prompting fresh acclaim and refrains of ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week’.

A New Organisation?

So far, so good – nothing said had been met by anything other than approval and enthusiasm. Plunkett introduced the two Labour delegates from the Dublin Trades Council. Its vice-president, Thomas Farren, wished God-speed to the work started that day.

“We believe,” Farren said, “that this is the start of a pure political organisation for this country. Organised labour in Ireland is prepared at all times to make any sacrifice necessary on behalf of an Irish Republic.”

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William O’Brien

The other Labour man, William O’Brien, spoke next. He was brief but precise, with a promise to adhere to every word of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, making this the only explicitly republican – as opposed to merely separatist – utterance made at the event.

After the hour for lunch, the Count resumed proceedings by announcing his wish to explain his proposals for the national organising of Ireland. He added that he was not calling it the reorganisation as the country within their time had never been organised – at least, not in any way to speak on behalf of its people (hear, hear).

“Two things the Irishman could not separate from life were,” said the Count grandly, “first, his reverence and subjection to God, and, secondly, his duty to his fellows in establishing liberty.”

Plunkett proceeded to outline how this establishment of liberty would be done. Clubs or circles would be formed in villages, towns and parishes, under a central body in Dublin and supported by an annual subscription from each member.

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The Round Room of the Mansion House, where the Plunkett Convention was held (this is a session of the Dáil in 1921)

A New Name?

Their first business would be to prepare for future elections. “However long delayed,” the Count said, relishing the imminent fate of the hapless IPP, “the axe will fall, and political executions will be considerable.”

In the lead-up to this, he continued, they must prepare themselves. Every parish in the country was to have groups of men ready to secure the polling booths and ensure that the will of the people be carried out.

Luckily, a new generation of young men had emerged and were standing for Ireland (hear, hear). They could not vote but they had the future of the country in their hands, and so should be used accordingly as a national army (cheers).

Now at his most demagogic, Plunkett strove to leave his audience in no doubt as to the immediacy of the situation:

They might be required to at any moment to have a movement going like lightning across the whole of Ireland, stirring the whole people, making them as one man, establishing a series of resistance which no government could ignore and which no government could withstand.

There might be, the Count admitted, almost as an afterthought, certain impediments to these ambitions of his, namely the presence of similar societies already in existence. In this regard, Plunkett was prepared to be accommodating – within certain parameters.

Any such group would have a right to be included in the new organisation, providing that they adhere to certain standards, namely abstentionist and a demand for nothing short of complete independence for Ireland. If they agreed to these terms, then they would be accepted as a valid part of the organisation. It was an offer of assimilation that the Count clearly believed to be a generous one.

Offhandedly, he added, he would be prepared to accept a new name to fit this new organisation. Most of the audience would have assumed that this was simply the Count thinking aloud. They would have had little idea that his stated willingness to discard old names – names like, say, Sinn Féin – amounted to a declaration of war on some others who were present.

A New Alliance?

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Seán Milroy

A close friend and ally of Griffith’s, Seán Milroy, spoke next. He moved that there existed an urgent need for united action between such bodies as Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish-American Alliance, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Labour Party.

In order to effect this coalition, a body to be called the Executive Council of the Irish National Alliance should be formed, consisting of five members elected by the convention, with three more appointed by each of the groups involved. Such level of detail suggested that Milroy, and possibly Griffith, had spent some time thinking this out beforehand.

From there, they would begin the process of contesting the next elections and presenting Ireland’s case at the coming Peace Conference. The culmination of this broad front would be the formation, at the earliest possible date, of a constitutional assembly to be known as the Council of the Irish Nation. Griffith seconded this motion, warning the audience that unless they banded together, the IPP would return to prominence.

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Herbert Pim

Herbert Pim also weighed in with his support, saying that he spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, one of the groups responsible for these proceedings. Had it not been for Sinn Féin, Pim said, this convention would not now be happening. Speaking as the self-confessed jealous guardian of the Sinn Féin name, he joked that it would be a pity to lose a brand so distasteful a flavour in the mouths of their Saxon friends (laughter).

There was but the slightest of elbowing here, with Plunkett’s advocacy of an entirely new organisation rubbing up against Pim’s reminder of the work Sinn Féin had already accomplished. Still, neither Milroy, Griffith nor Pim had ventured anything irretrievably at odds with the Count’s grand vision.

A New Problem

Had the mood been different, the relationships more trusting, this might have been taken as healthy discourse, different takes on essentially the same thing. Instead, the Count heard their stated preference for a confederation of groups, as opposed to his single centralised one, as a sop to those who were not yet sold on the abstentionist policy. It was not a point Plunkett was interested in stepping back from.

Standing his ground, Plunkett told them that they had pledged against sending their representatives to Westminster. From now on, Ireland must approach the Peace Conference as nothing other than a separate nation. He added a warning that perhaps doubled as a threat: did they think the young men of Ireland would support them otherwise?

There was only one sacrifice, the Count continued, to be asked of an Irish patriot, and that was to put his life at the behest of the nation (hear, hear). He had not left his comfortable position as Director of the National Museum to be told his policy was too advanced or that he was alone in his views.

(Technically, Plunkett had not so much left the Museum as was fired, but no one was churlish enough to point this out.)

He was *not* alone, he assured the hall. They must show England that they were not half-hearted, that they would resolutely hold on to the principles for which their martyred compatriots, his son included, had died (cheers).

Accordingly, Plunkett moved for the following resolution:

That we, the assembly of Irish Independence, desire to establish an organisation to unite Irish advanced opinion and provide for action, as the result of its conclusions.

The Convention secretary was at hand to second it. The resolution for a new organisation was declared carried, but the accompanying cries of ‘no, no’ from the hall indicated that this was not a unanimous, or even popular, decision. The tension gestating beneath the surface, away from public sight since the Roscommon election two months ago, was finally rising to the fore, ready to ooze out.[24]

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

 

References

[1] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 218-9 ; Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8543

[2] Brennan, Robert (BMH / WS 779), p. 10

[3] Irish Times, 04/08/1916, 11/09/1916 ; O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part IV) pp. 144-5

[4] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 257

[5] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 146-7

[6] Plunkett Dillon, p. 257

[7] Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?]), p. 98

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 118

[9] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 395 ; McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

[10] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1776), p. 101

[11] Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 392), pp. 5-6

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 68-9

[13] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 222, 226

[14] Ibid, p. 230, 313 ; Nugent, pp. 44, 271-2

[15] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 194

[16] McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (accessed 08/01/2017)

[17] Plunkett Dillon, p. 195

[18] Good, p. 6

[19] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go, p. 144

[20] O’Shiel, pp. 9-11

[21] Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), p. 37

[22] Dillon, p. 395

[23] Dore, p. 8

[24] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

 

Bibliography

Newspaper

Freeman’s Journal

 

Books

Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])

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

McGee, Owen, Arthur Griffith (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2015)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

 

Bureau of Military Statements

Brennan, Robert, WS 779

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

 

Articles

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

McGreevy, Ronan (29/06/2015) ‘On 1916, and why Michael Collins ‘was a pup’’, The Irish Times (Accessed 08/01/2017)

 

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

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

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

Failure to Comply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Count George Noble Plunkett

Forced Resignation

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

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

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

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

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The Royal Dublin Society (front)

A Storm of Indignation

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

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

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

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William Field

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

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

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

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

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

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The Royal Dublin Society (interior)

Unconventional

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

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

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

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

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Cartoon of Count Plunkett

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

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

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Laurence Ginnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘An Amiable Old Whig’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

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

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

Count Cypher

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

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

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

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

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

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Arthur Grffith

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

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

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

Keoghane: What do you think about fighting North Roscommon?

O’Brien: Well, there are enough obstacles.

Keoghane: What are they?

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

Keoghane: Apart from money, what are the objections?

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

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

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

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William O’Brien

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

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

This is Going to Cost Money

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

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Rory O’Connor

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

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

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Count Plunkett

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

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

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

Plunkett: Do you think these men could be got?

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

Plunkett: Yes, certainly.

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

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

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

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

O’Brien: Very well, I will take it.

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

Blood from the Lips

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

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

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Boyle, Co. Roscommon, in the blizzard of 1947

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

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

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

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

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

‘Up Roscommon!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Broadstone Station

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

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

An Alternative Parliament for a Free People

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26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

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

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

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

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

The Sinn Féin Candidate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1917

[2] Ibid, 16/01/1917

[3] Ibid, 19/01/1917

[4] Ibid, 22/01/1917

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

[6] FJ, 23/01/1917

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

[8] FJ, 27/01/1917

[9] Ibid, 01/02/1917

[10] Roscommon Herald, 03/02/2017

[11] Irish Press, 15/03/1948

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

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

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

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

[16] Nugent, p. 70

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

[18] Nugent, pp. 72-4

[19] Ibid, p. 76

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

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

[22] Irish Times, 07/02/1917

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

[24] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1917

 

Bibliography

Books

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

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

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

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

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

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Roscommon Herald

Bureau of Military History Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Doherty, Kitty, WS 355

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus, WS 889

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

The Savonarola

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

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

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

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Séumas Robinson

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

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

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

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

The Martinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Accuser

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hardliner

griffith
Arthur Griffith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Renegade

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

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

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

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

The Usurper

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

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

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

The Logician

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

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

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

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

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

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

The Dreamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comrade

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

james_connolly_swf
James Connolly

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

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

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

The Social Republican

mellows
Liam Mellows

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

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

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

The Subordinate

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

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

The Strategist

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

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

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

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

The Ignored

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

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

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column

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

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

The Man of Many Things

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

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

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

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

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

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

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

[4] Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Sean, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1722

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

Other Source

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

 

Book Review: Judging W.T. Cosgrave, by Michael Laffan (2014)

cosgraveJudging W.T. Cosgrave is the third in the Judging X series and the first to be on a non-Fianna Fáil figure, the previous two being about Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. The book launch was notable in the presence of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny; likewise, the one for Judging Dev in 2007 was attended by Bertie Ahern: statements in themselves about how Civil War politics continues to define the contemporary sort in Ireland. It is hard, after all, to imagine either of the two party leaders ‘crossing the floor’ by attending the other book launch. Cosgrave, de Valera and Lemass may be long dead, but the ghosts of their wars continue to be felt today.

History has judged Cosgrave to be something of a ghost himself. After all, this book had to have Cosgrave’s full name in the title, as opposed to de Valera needing only Dev for his.

Perhaps it was due to being sandwiched between the overwhelming presences of Michael Collins and de Valera, or people equating his calm, judicious manner with a lack of charisma. A mocking cartoon from 1927 that features in Laffan’s book as a double-spread is of a sleepy-looking Cosgrave painting a portrait of himself in a ridiculously heroic pose.

dev0002
Éamon de Valera

Such mild appearances were deceiving. Upon the sudden deaths of Arthur Griffith and Collins in 1922, the newly-chosen chairman of the Free State cabinet found himself with the unenviable task of heading a government under siege. His enemies were initially contemptuous: de Valera dismissed him as a “ninny”, while Rory O’Connor courted hubris in believing that Cosgrave could be “easily scared to clear out.”

But they had badly underestimated Cosgrave’s spine which, when stiffened, could be a fearsome thing. The executions of Anti-Treatyite prisoners, including that of the cocksure O’Connor, shook the Civil War opposition enough for its previous policy of targeting Dáil deputies to be abandoned.

Cosgrave was bothered by the official use of the term ‘reprisal’ and its connotations with the Black-and-Tans, but otherwise he complained at how the state executions had been limited to a few counties, leading to the mistaken impression that the rest of Ireland was peaceful. Any failure to implement such strategic executions, in his opinion, was the equivalent of losing a battle. The Civil War was a life-or-death struggle for the newborn Free State, and Cosgrave was not going to allow the “dregs of society”, as he came to call the other side, to get in the way of running a country.

people_cosgrave
W.T. Cosgrave

What is striking, while reading this book, is the extent that state policies reflected Cosgrave’s personal inclinations. With the Irish language, he was game, and his government took steps to make it compulsory. But his own was never more than patchy and went no further than signing the minutes of Cumann na nGaedheal meetings in Irish. Even this token gesture was dropped after the party lost power in 1932 and he switched to signing them in English. He may have liked to talk about the Gaelicization of Ireland, but lacked the commitment to enforce anything substantial, much like the country in general.

In any case, Cosgrave was more interested in balancing the books. He told Cumann na nGaedheal members that their priorities were to ensure “an ordered society, hard work, constant endeavour”, among others, and these Spartan tastes were reflected in the fiscal conservatism of his government.

Similarly, the Free State’s policy of integration towards ex-Unionists was as much a reflection of Cosgrave’s moderate instincts as it was a need to build a working Ireland with as much support as it could get.

The choices of state symbolism are the most fun to read, probably as much as they were for the cabinet to discuss: the artist designing the pig that was to feature on the half-penny coin was requested to reduce the fullness of its jowls. Why this should be important is not stated. One is minded of a trainspotters’ convention or the debates of Tolkien enthusiasts on whether the Balrog had wings.

resized_halfpenny-pedecimalOther choices on symbols are all too illuminating: the official seal of state would be a harp but not one, God forbid, with a female figure included. Catholic morality was the order of the day. Cosgrave saw to it that the new coinage would feature only ‘profane’ images, as opposed to religious ones, given the worldly ways money could be used. This was still too much for one priest who ruminated against the coins as “the thin edge of the wedge of Freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity.” Quite.

This priest was not to be the only clergyman vocal on how the state should be run. An eager-to-please, almost servile consideration to what the Church hierarchy thought was to be a regular feature of Cumann na nGaedheal. Particularly disturbing for this reviewer to learn was Cosgrave’s proposal in February 1921 of a ‘Theological Board’ as an additional house of the Dáil, whose role would be to debate whether any proposed legislation would be “contrary to Faith and Morals.”

cosgrave+priest
W.T. Cosgrave with Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe

By Faith, this, of course, meant the Catholic one. Mercifully, his fellow cabinet members thought this was a step too far, but if Ireland had avoided the route to theocracy it would still become one in all but name under Cumann na nGaedheal and its successor governments.

Laffan reminds his readers that no government then could have defied the Church and survived, and indeed none did until very recently. Even so, whether it was proposing to Dublin Corporation as early as 1915 that it work with the Dublin Vigilance Committee on the subject of objectionable films or the Archbishop of Dublin being sent on request an advance copy of the 1922 draft constitution, Cosgrave was only too happy to oblige.

l-_dunbar_harrison
Letitia Dunbar-Harrison

In fairness to the man, he did his best to resist the worst examples of fanaticism, such as the case of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, the Mayo librarian refused a position due to her Protestantism. Even if Cosgrave ultimately had to resort to the strategic retreat of transferring Dunbar-Harrison out of Mayo and into the Department of Defence, his attitude that “we Catholics ought not to fear Protestants”, however plaintive, was in favourable contrast to de Valera’s opportunistic support for the Mayo sectarianism. Dunbar-Harrison, for all that, only held her new post in the Department of Defence briefly, as she soon married and was thus obliged to resign, another sign of the times that makes us lucky to be in the present one.

As for the Blueshirts, Cosgrave’s interest in them was limited to their strategic, not ideological value, a “prospect of achieving unity against de Valera.” Certainly, it is hard to imagine a man who was content with a democratic transition of power at his expense having much sympathy with totalitarianism. Unlike some of his Fine Gael colleagues, he disdained wearing the Blueshirt uniform in the Dáil, and kept a cautious distance from Eoin O’Duffy even while obliged to publicly praise his party leader on occasion.

ft5s20blueshirt20group20hands20salut
Eoin O’Duffy at a Blueshirt rally

As opposition leader, the same calm, unpretentious traits that had served him well as a nation-builder came to be seen as liabilities in an increasingly stagnate and directionless party. Laffan makes no excuses for Cosgrave’s later failures as Fine Gael leader, leaving the reader to watch as the hero fades away into a not-so-golden sunset of political irrelevance.

seanlemass
Seán Lemass

His death in 1965 was met with indifference by the Fianna Fáil government who did not even bother to send a representative to the funeral. A notable exceptional was Seán Lemass, who praised in the Dáil the “privations and sacrifices which he endured so that national freedom might be ours.”

In many ways, as Laffan notes, the two men were kindred spirits to the point, it was claimed, of Lemass modelling his style of debate Cosgrave’s. Both were quick to praise the practical qualities in the other – practicality being amongst the highest of virtues for both – and both their respective governments sought to be meritocracies rather than the usual clientelism of parish-pump politics.

Yet Lemass has been highly regarded to this day while Cosgrave is remembered, when he is at all, with not much more than polite respect. Perhaps Cosgrave had been in the wrong party after all, and would have belonged more in Fianna Fáil where his talents could have been better realised? Or is that a ‘step across the room’ too far to contemplate?

 

Publisher’s Website: Royal Irish Academy

Originally posted on The Irish Story (01/02/2015)