The struggle had been a hard one but at last the three men, Colm Ó Lochlainn, Denis Daly and Sam Windrim, could claim a victory – something otherwise in short supply – when they reached the mountain pass of Bealach Óisín. This was despite the plaintive protests of their car, with its hissing, spluttering engine, which had forced the trio to get out and push the floundering vehicle over the last few yards. For a long while afterwards, all they could do was slump over the bonnet, utterly exhausted, but on the brink of escape from Co. Kerry.
As it was now dark, the three men slept as best they could, huddled together in the rear seat. Though they did not know it yet, Ó Lochlainn and Daly were all that remained of a five-strong team who had left Dublin the day before, on Good Friday 1916, as part of the opening moves in a national upheaval set to happen the following week at Easter.
Not that Ó Lochlainn knew much about it. Despite his place on the Irish Volunteers Executive, and his rank as captain on the staff of Joseph Plunkett, their Director of Intelligence, he had only been told the day before, Holy Thursday, when Plunkett briefed Ó Lochlainn about an operation he was to undertake in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, involving a wireless station near there to be dismantled and removed elsewhere.
Even then, Ó Lochlainn was ignorant as to the whys, until another high-ranking figure in the Irish Volunteers, J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, stopped by later that Thursday at Ó Lochlainn’s house in Dublin, seeking to have some gaps in his own knowledge filled:
I told Ginger where I was going and he informed me he was off the following morning to take charge of the Volunteers of the Kilkenny and Carlow districts. He told me that a rising had been planned to start on Easter Sunday…but at that time he knew very little about what was going to take place, and wanted to know if I knew anything to confirm the rumours in circulation.
Ó Lochlainn did not. Daly knew more, albeit only a little, from attending a series of strategy meetings with Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael Collins, Con Keating and Dan Sheehan:
As I understood it at the time, the main purpose of our mission was to enable wireless contact to be made with a German arms ship (I don’t think name of vessel was mentioned), which was expected at Fenlit on Easter Sunday.
The second objective was apparently to misdirect any Royal Navy warships off the South-West coast, via the wireless messages from the pilfered equipment, away from Tralee Bay where the German vessel in question would land. However “I cannot, from personal knowledge, confirm or deny, that there was such an intention,” Daly later wrote. “It is possible, but I do not recollect any discussion on the matter.”
Years might pass but much about the event that had changed Ireland irrevocably would remain obscured in ignorance, even to its participants.
Daly guessed that if anyone in the team had the dummy codes to send, it would have been Keating, a Kerryman who was to be their wireless operator. He and Daly were selected for the group, along with Ó Lochlainn and Sheehan, who had previously lived in London, where he helped procure rifles to be smuggled over to Ireland. Another conspirator, Joseph O’Rourke, was intended to go as the fifth man but Mac Diarmada decided at the last minute to keep him in Dublin to help coordinate the upcoming revolt and sent Charles Monahan, a Belfast native, in his place.
Who was in charge is uncertain, as both Ó Lochlainn and Daly claimed command in their respective accounts. The two men met for the first time on the Friday morning at the Ballast Office, Westmoreland Street, where they were introduced to each other by Michael Collins, who then handed them their train tickets for the journey.
Ó Lochlainn had come on a bicycle, which he left behind with Collins. When Ó Lochlainn later asked for its return, Collins told him that his bicycle had ended up in a barricade on Abbey Street during Easter Week.
Entering the Kingdom
The team headed down to Killarney by train, with Ó Lochlainn and Daly in one carriage, and Keating, Sheehan and Monahan on another, in order to throw off suspicion. Code words for their arrival had been prepared in advance – “Are you John?” “Yes, William sent me” – but they seemed so obvious that it was agreed not to bother with them.
As it turned out, there were only two cars waiting at Killarney Station – a Maxwell and a Briscoe – and both with Limerick plates, which rendered any code words unnecessary. Keating got into one, while the other four men, for appearance’s sake, walked into town until reaching the College, at which point the cars picked them up.
That is, at least, according to Ó Lochlainn’s version. In Daly’s, the group first had lunch in a pub in Killarney, before going to a road junction outside town at the appointed time:
The cars were there. Both cars were the property of Tommy McInerney of Limerick. He drove himself and the other was driven by a driver of whose name I do not remember. We had never met either man before.
The second wheelman, Sam Windrim, had been drafted in at the last minute when domestic circumstances made it impossible for the intended driver, John Quilty, to participate. Both McInerney and Quilty were Limerick Volunteers but Windrim was a newcomer and so it was deemed necessary for the other two to first take him to the privacy of an upstairs office in Limerick and swear him to secrecy.
Again, Ó Lochlainn and Daly stayed together in the Maxwell, the remaining three in the Briscoe. The former group were driven ahead by Windrim, with the others at their tail, staying close enough to see each other’s lights. “It was never intended that we should separate,” remembered Daly.
Ó Lochlainn watched the hedgerows and stone walls of the Kerry landscape pass by, while the sky deepened into twilight and then night. He also kept a close eye on the Briscoe to the rear, though not closely enough, because, after three miles out of Killorglin town, he realised that he could no longer see the headlights. The other car was gone.
They doubled back to search, straining their eyes through the gloom, to no avail. They stopped and waited, hoping that it was just a case of engine trouble or a flat tyre, and that their comrades would reappear at any moment but, as an hour passed, that no longer seemed feasible. Deciding that their mission took precedence, Ó Lochlainn, Daly and Windrim pressed on to Cahersiveen, only to be stopped on the road by a whistle-blast from ahead.
Two figures stepped into the headlights, showing themselves to be a sergeant and a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Ó Lochlainn instinctively reached for the revolver he had borrowed from Plunkett.
Escape from Kerry
“Will we shoot?” asked Daly.
“No,” Ó Lochlainn replied. “I let someone else start the war. Talk will do for these fellows.”
Ó Lochlainn’s instincts proved correct. The three passengers explained that they were medical students to the RIC pair, who proceeded to give the car the briefest of searches. When they found a box and a bag, the explanation that the first held boots and the other clothes was enough to dissuade the policemen from peering inside.
In truth, the trio were equally ignorant of the contents, and it was only after the RIC men waved them through that they had a look for themselves. What they found was enough to startle Ó Lochlainn:
Oh! sergeant; that box contained two jemmies, a keyhole saw and a few other trinkets. The bag held an assorted collection of electrical appliances, two hatches and a heavy hammer.
Had the police been more thorough, the ‘medical students’ would have had a hard time explaining why their profession required these particular items. As it were:
Over the edge went the lot, owners having no further use for same. The job was off – a few words let drop by the sergeant had let out that a platoon of soldiers had come…and that all police units were on patrol.
Ó Lochlainn and Daly agreed that the only thing to do was leave Kerry, since neither of them had the necessary technical knowledge to dismantle and rearrange the wireless set as intended. That responsibility would have lain with Keating and possibly Sheehan, and they were MIA with Monahan. Given the agitated state of the authorities, it was surmised that the second car had been stopped back in Killorglin and its occupants arrested.
The only route out of the Kingdom ran through the narrow pass at Bealach Óisín, and to there they went, or at least tried to, for both the hilly terrain and their car fought them every inch of the way. For an hour they struggled uphill in the dark, much to the perturbation of their vehicle:
She was slipping and spitting and racing and faltering and stumbling and once she got one hind wheel into a gull and nearly turned over, and then we pushed and heaved and slipped and swore and called on the Lord and groaned and grunted until we arrived at last where the story begins.
But, for them, it was the end. The car almost made it to Killarny, before breaking down for good. Ó Lochlainn and Daly left Windrim with his defeated Maxwell, and walked to the train station in time to catch the morning ride back to Dublin. While changing carriages at Mallow, Co. Cork, they received word that there had been arrests made in Kerry.
But not of Keating, Sheehan or Monahan. Ó Lochlainn only learnt of their fate a month later when he chanced upon a newspaper article. It had been reported earlier, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April but, given the brief attention the story received in the Irish Times, a reader could be forgiven for overlooking it:
THREE MEN DROWNED IN KERRY – MOTOR CAR JUMPS INTO A RIVER
Three men, whose names are unknown, were drowned in the River Laune, near Killorglin, Thursday night. They were motoring towards Tralee and, taking the wrong turn, the car went over the quay wall, and the three men were drowned. The chauffeur escaped. Two of the bodies were recovered last evening.
That the newspaper incorrectly dated the incident to Thursday and not the Friday shows how little was known at the time. John Quilty, in whose car the drowned men had been, heard that McInerney, the driver and sole survivor, had lost his way and asked for directions from a young girl on the roadside.
“First turn on your right,” she said, the direction leading an oblivious McInerney, driving almost blindly in the dark, down a cul-de-sac to Ballykissane Pier, over which they plunged.
Sheehan and Monahan went down with the Briscoe, but, as McInerney later told Quilty, he and Keating managed to pull free and swam together in the cold waters, shouting for help until a light appeared to guide them to shore.
Keating never made it, suddenly disappearing beneath the surface with a cry of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. McInerney pressed on until he reached dry land, where he was assisted by Patrick Begley, a schoolteacher who, as luck would finally have it, possessed enough Fenian feeling to hide McInerney’s gun before the RIC could find it on him.
Supplied with a policeman’s uniform in place of his wet clothes, McInerney fenced with the questions posed to him, insisting to the RIC that he knew nothing about the other men and had only been hired to drive them to Cahersiveen. When Windrim – after seeing Ó Lochlainn and Daly off out of Kerry – and Quilty, whose number plate was on the salvaged Briscoe, were picked up in turn by the authorities, they too kept schtum, insisting on only the most innocent of motives for all involved.
Coming to a Halt
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the newspapers, a second report concerning a most unusual occurrence in Kerry was published by the Press Bureau on that same day of Easter Monday:
The Secretary of the Admiralty announces – During the period between p.m. April 20 and p.m. April 21 an attempt to land arms and ammunition in Ireland was made by a vessel under the guise of a neutral merchant ship, but in reality a German auxiliary…The auxiliary sank and a number of prisoners was made.
It was but one mishap that slowly but surely unravelled the plans for the Rising.
Captain Jeremiah O’Connell had assembled ten Kerrymen from his Cahersiveen Company on Easter Sunday, the most he could find on short notice. As it was he who had dispatched Keating to Dublin to answer a request for a man trained as a wireless operator, he was more in the loop than most.
He had also been told to find a pilot for the boat that was to escort their German visitors to shore when they arrived, at which point O’Connell would lead his squad to Tralee by bicycle and capture the barracks, railway station and post office. The Cahersiveen Volunteers were on their way to do just that when, upon reaching Killorglin, they learnt of the tragedy at Ballykissane. The earthly remains of their fellow Kerryman, Keating, was already lying in the courthouse.
Continuing on to Tralee, they next discovered that things had gone from bad to worse: not only had the German vessel been captured but fresh orders from Eoin MacNeill, their Chief of Staff, had come through to call off the whole venture, with the would-be rebels ordered back to their homes. There was nothing left for O’Connell and his subordinates to do but just that.
As it happened, even if the five men had succeeded in obtaining the wireless radios, the mission of the German ship – the Aud – could still have only ended in defeat. Messages transmitted to New York were to have been received by sympathetic Irish-Americans and then forwarded to the German embassy to ensure that the Aud appeared off the Kerry coast at the assigned time and with knowledge of the signals to give and receive from the shore.
For Want of a Nail…
Such an intervention from a friendly power could tip the odds decisively in favour of the Rising. When Patrick McCartan, whose role was to help facilitate these trans-Atlantic communications, met one of his co-conspirators, Tom Clarke, in Dublin, he found that:
Tom was enthusiastic about the prospect. He said there were at least 5,000 Germans coming and he was all enthusiastic about how thorough the Germans were and that they would do things in a big way, so that I left him for the first train next morning as enthusiastic as himself.
As it turned out, the rebels had severely overestimated their ‘gallant allies in Europe’. No one seemed to have realised that the Aud, already on course for Ireland:
…had no wireless. They acted on the assumption that the Germans were so thorough and perfect in all their arrangements that there would have been a means of communicating with the Aud.
The result was that the ship arrived on the Thursday, the 20th April, three days earlier than the expected Sunday, with no one present to receive them with signals or pilot-boats. The crew waited in the waters of Tralee Bay for twenty hours before passing warships in the Royal Navy grew suspicious and intercepted the Aud as it tried to escape to the high seas.
Its cargo of 20,000 rifles fell short of the 5,000 soldiers Clarke had been anticipating but the loss was still sufficient enough for MacNeill – already skittish about their chances – to conclude that insurgency was no longer practical. With that decision came the cancellation orders that Jeremiah O’Connell and other Irish Volunteers all over the country received in time to stop them in their tracks on Easter Sunday.
Though the Rising would go ahead the next day regardless, it did so in a piecemeal manner, limited to the capital and a handful of other areas, and did not last the week.
Small wonder, then, that when Frank Henderson, one of the participants-to-be in Easter Week, was reading the evening papers about the mishaps in Kerry, he had the sinking feeling “that we were going to have a repetition of all the previous insurrections.”
Rarely had a wrong turn led to so many woes.
The Living and the Dead
There was a slightly eerie postscript to the episode. Alf Monahan had been in Galway during the Easter Rising, one of the few areas that did see action. When the rebels decided on the Saturday that further resistance was useless, Monahan accompanied Liam Mellows and Frank Hynes, the Galway commander and a company captain respectively, in going on the run, through the Galway wilderness and into Clare, where they were sheltered by the local Volunteers in a tiny, hillside cottage.
When provided with newspapers, the trio were able to catch up with events, from the heavy fighting in Dublin to the executions afterwards, including the drowning in Kerry. As only two names – Keating and Sheehan – were given, Alf Monahn did not know at first that the third victim was his brother, Charles.
They stayed in the cottage until Mellows left for America on the orders of the new revolutionary leadership, after which Hynes was taken to Tipperary. When Monahan’s turn came near Christmas, he believed that the car that drove him away to safety was the same vehicle in which his brother had drowned eight months ago, with even the same chauffeur at the wheel, Tommy McInerney.
In this, Alf was mistaken, for it was the Maxwell car he was in, while Charles had taken his last ride that fateful night in the Briscoe. All the same, it must have made for an uncomfortable journey.
In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?
The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”
If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!
Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.
Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.
“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.
The Plot Thickens
Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:
…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.
Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.
A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.
Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.
What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.
It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.
It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.
Optimism and Comradeship
Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.
At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”
The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”
Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.
Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.
It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.
Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.
Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.
Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.
“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.
“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”
“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”
“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.
“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.
“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.
Na Fianna Éireann
At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”
White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.
The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.
The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).
More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.
The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.
From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.
On the Road
In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:
This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.
When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead!
In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”
Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.
The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.
As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.
A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.
Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.
His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.
Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.
Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.
Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.
But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.
A Meeting in Tuam
The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.
“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”
The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.
“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:
…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.
It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.
“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.
“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.
“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.
Destroying the Evidence
Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.
When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.
According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:
The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.
Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.
This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”
In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.
An Athenry Return
Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.
The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.
When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.
The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.
But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.
When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.
“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”
On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.
As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.
They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.
“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”
These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:
I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.
Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.
Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.
“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.
If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.
Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.
He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.
Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want.We have every confidence in you.
Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.
Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.
Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”
The Search Begins
The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”
All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.
At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.
As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.
When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.
Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.
They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.
The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:
He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.
The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.
After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:
We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.
There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.
Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.
McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.
When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.
With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.
The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.
Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.
As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.
 Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5
The Robert Emmet Commemoration Concert was announced for the 4th March 1919, to be held in the Mansion House, Dublin. Posters advertised the event with the promise of a special – but unnamed – star attraction:
AN ADDRESS WILL BE GIVEN BY
A PROMINENT REPUBLICAN LEADER.
The concert organisers played their cards close to their chests, letting only a select few know the identity of the mystery guest. After the first part of the performance, it was announced by Diarmuid O’Hegarty that the promised oration was about to commence in the Round Room, to be presided over by Seán Ó Muirthile.
That both O’Hegarty and Ó Muirthile were high-ranking members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret society dedicated to freedom for Ireland, was no coincidence. This was to be more than a celebration of a long-dead patriot but a defiant clenching of the fist by living ones.
Even if unaware of all this, the guests could not have failed to note the presence of the Irish Volunteers, acting as stewards for the event. Some of them had been ordered to carry revolvers, although presumably not openly, this being an event to enjoy, after all.
As the advertised ‘prominent Republican leader’ prepared to make his entrance, Volunteers took up duty by the doors. One of them, Michael Lynch, remembered the anticipation:
One could feel the air of expectancy in the vast audience. From the supper-room, at the rere [sic] of the round room, came the sound of a pipers’ band tuning up. After a few minutes, the doors of the supper-room were thrown open and the pipers’ band came in, making a most infernal noise.
In the middle of the band, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, was Seán McGarry. As soon as he was recognised, the crowd broke out into a rapturous outburst of cheers, clapping and whistling loud enough to drown out the ‘infernal noise’ of the band. For who could fail to appreciate the pluck and daring of the man who had, along with others, broken out of an English jail a mere month and a day ago?
Ability, Tact and Discretion
McGarry walked on stage “rather shyly,” according to Lynch, understandably so, given the attention being heaped on him. Sharing the platform was Ó Muirthile and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, bedecked in his chain of office. There the three of them stood for many minutes until the cheering had died down enough for Ó Muirthile to begin.
He introduced McGarry – rather unnecessarily by this point – and said that if the true story of his escape was told, it would shatter all the ones they had been reading in the newspapers.
“At any rate,” Ó Muirthile continued, “he is here, and he has not been brought here by any of the methods that have been described in the Press for the past few days. He is here, owing in the ability, tact, and discretion of the men who are leading the Irish Republican Army.”
Then it was the turn of the Lord Mayor. He stood before them, he said, in the full adornment of his office to honour this latest fugitive from British injustice. He was there because a solemn and imperative duty demanded him to be there, first to tender a hearty welcome to his colleague, Councillor Seán McGarry, to the Mansion House.
And he was there to show his utter contempt, a contempt which was shared in every liberty-loving man and woman the whole world over, for a Government which detained in English jails so many of his fellow countrymen without any trial, without any charge, at the expense of the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and fair play.
(O’Neill was far less amenable when he wrote about the event several years later. He had worn his chain of office in honour of Robert Emmet, not McGarry whose appearance had been sprung on him at the last second. A consummate professional, O’Neill had nonetheless carried on with the show.)
Now it was finally time for McGarry to deliver his much hyped oration. What it was, Lynch could not recall, not that it mattered much. It was enough for McGarry to have appeared in public and give lie to the claims of the British Government that not one of its former prisoners had made it back to Ireland.
Whatever McGarry said, it was received with “great enthusiasm,” according to the Irish Times. The Irish Independent said even less, reporting in detail on Ó Muirthile’s and O’Neill’s words but nothing about McGarry speaking at all. For all the stir he caused, McGarry emerged from his own performance as little more than a prop for a piece of theatre.
But then, perhaps as Lynch suggested, it did not matter all that much in the end.
The Volunteers on the doors were ordered to bar everyone from leaving or using the phones while the speeches were going on. Trust was evidently a limited commodity. The Lord Mayor was among those blocked but made light of the inconvenience, quipping that he could not move in his own house.
As soon as McGarry was done, he was whisked out of the building by an escort of Volunteers and taken to Molesworth Street where a car was waiting, not to mention a large force of policemen and detectives, no doubt alerted by the gathering nearby. Nonetheless, perhaps deterred by the bodyguards, the police did not interfere as McGarry was taken to the car and driven away. The Volunteers returned to the concert which, by all accounts, continued to be a great success.
The Men Behind the Man
Seán McGarry was no newcomer to Irish Republicanism. Born in 1886, in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, the son of a letter carrier, he worked as an electrician while a key operative in the planning of the Howth gunrunning and then later the Easter Rising.
Unfortunately, he wrote no memoir and gave little about himself in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement (leaving it to others to tease out some details on his activities), preferring instead to focus on his mentor within the IRB, Tom Clarke.
McGarry first met the veteran Fenian in 1907 shortly after the latter’s return to Ireland. He was to provide no details on the circumstances – as if the years spent in the shadows and silences of a secret society had sapped his ability to be too forthcoming – only that he had been expecting a venerable elder, aged by many years in prison but finding instead one with the demeanour and enthusiasm of someone much younger. McGarry quickly became one of Clarke’s staunchest followers, a “right-hand man” in the words of another IRB member.
Another IRB organiser to whom McGarry was close was Seán Mac Diarmada. They had known each other since 1906-7 when they had belonged to the Dungannon Club in Belfast, one of the few times McGarry ventured out of the Dublin orbit.
In general, McGarry served as a go-between and emissary. The future Chief Justice of Ireland, Tim Sullivan, received a visit from McGarry in 1915 while the former was working as a barrister. McGarry had been sent by Mac Diarmada on behalf of a Volunteer arrested for illegal possession of arms and explosives.
As instructed, McGarry offered Sullivan a hundred guineas on his brief. Sullivan stared hard at his visitor, saying: “In my opinion, you boys are Fenians.”
True to his membership of a secret society, McGarry said nothing. Correctly taking the silence as an assent, Sullivan then agreed to take on the case, waiving aside his usual fee (the defendant was later acquitted).
A Day Out in Howth
On the 25th July 1914, a message was sent to several IRB initiates (who doubled as Irish Volunteers) to meet McGarry that day at Nelson’s Pillar. None of the four men who came knew what was to be expected of them but waited all the same until McGarry arrived. When the others inquired further, he politely told them to mind their own business.
The group drove to Amiens Street Station where McGarry purchased five tickets for Howth. They arrived in the harbour at 4 pm, where McGarry told them to go to the end of the East Pier while he waited by the station. The four others did so, and McGarry later rejoined then at the Pier, accompanied by a middle-aged fisherman in a blue jersey and a peaked cap.
The hoary sea dog bluntly told them that their request to do a spot of fishing was impossible given the rough weather. After some arguing on the matter, McGarry walked away with the fisherman, still arguing, but it seems to have been resolved when McGarry returned to the others after a short while. If he could get a boat, he asked them, would they be willing to venture out on it – a reasonable question as it was raining hard with high winds and rough waters.
Undeterred, the men voiced their assent. McGarry finally told them what was going on – they were to go out and make contact with a boat laden with weapons. This came as no huge surprise as the men had been hearing rumours about the importation of guns for some months now.
‘A Beautiful Sight’
McGarry then left again after telling them to stay put until further instructions. Two hours later, the men were surprised to see Darrell Figgis, the writer (and, unknown to them, one of the chief organisers of the gunrunning), coming down the pier with the same fisherman as before, the pair of them walking up and down the boards in a fresh argument.
McGarry arrived back on the scene, accompanied by Clarke, in time to join in the argument with Figgis and the stubborn fisherman. Finally, McGarry told the waiting team to remain where they were on the pier while he attempted to make alternative arrangements for a boat, possibly from Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) on the other side of the bay. The fisherman was apparently not to be moved.
The four men remained by the sea, depressed at the seemingly wasted day. A messenger came on a bicycle at 9 pm, five hours after they had arrived, only to tell them to keep waiting. The last tram and train had left Howth for the night by the time a second cyclist arrived to inform them they could return to the city but to stick together. Soaked to the skin from the rain, the men trudged back inland.
McGarry drove with Figgis to Kingstown, hoping to catch the yacht, Asgard, loaded with the promised armaments from there. They sighted the vessel over the water but, lacking anyone like they had in Howth, the pair had no choice but to finally retire, weary and disheartened, to the Marine Hotel at 4 am for a few hours of sleep.
Returning to Howth on the first train that morning, McGarry and Figgis met a second team from Bray, which were posted at the base of the north pier. By 9:30 am the Asgard could be seen on the far side of Lambay Island but, as it approached the pier, there was no sign of any other Volunteers to assist. It was only when the yacht drew next to the pier-head that Figgis heard McGarry beside him say: “Here they are; look at them, aren’t they a beautiful sight.”
A column of Volunteers were marching towards them, including the four who had been with McGarry in Howth the day before. All were ready and eager to assist in the unloading of the arms in what would become known to history as the Howth gunrunning. It had been touch-and-go, but the efforts of McGarry, Clarke, Figgis and the Irish Volunteers had finally paid off.
McGarry was among those assembled in the library of the Gaelic League headquarters in Parnell Square in September 1914 when Clarke and MacDermott announced their intentions of starting an armed uprising at an opportune time. Also present were James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Seán T. O’Kelly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Mac Donagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, many of whom would help spearhead the Rising. Given how close McGarry was to both Clarke and Mac Diarmada, the news could hardly have come as a surprise to him.
Sometimes afterwards, McGarry called on Liberty Hall, the ostensible reason to ask Connolly for an article on the Irish Citizen Army (presumably for the Irish Freedom, the IRB organ that he and Mac Diarmada worked on). The two had been on friendly terms for a number of years, McGarry having given Connolly a weekly article during the Dublin Lockout of 1913 in a gesture of solidary.
As McGarry was editor of the Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral souvenir booklet (in addition to the other hats he wore in service to the cause), the topic of conversation turned to that of the deceased Fenian.
“What’s the good of talking about Rossa?” Connolly asked, according to McGarry’s recollections in his BHM Statement. “Rossa wanted to fight England when England was at peace. You fellows want to fight when she is at war.”
When McGarry finally departed from Liberty Hall, it was with a promise from Connolly that the latter would provide the sought-after article. In return, McGarry would talk with him further. After McGarry had passed onto Clarke what he and Connolly had talked about, Clarke paid Liberty Hall a visit of his own. Shortly afterwards Connolly became the newest member of their budding cell. Although McGarry did not say no explicitly in his BMH Statement, it is clear that he was used to ‘feel out’ Connolly, who was at that point an outsider to the planning and an unknown factor needing to be brought into the fold.
McGarry would later publicly describe Connolly as “the man who…taught me to be a Republican.” Republicanism from a different angle, perhaps, but Republicanism all the same. In private, however, he remembered Connolly as a man of great courage and intelligence but also one who was headstrong, naïve and easily manipulated by the far wilier Clarke. For all his extravagant praise of the socialist, it was the Fenian who truly taught McGarry how to be a Republican.
Bumps on the Road
Preparations for an uprising continued, although not always smoothly. “It’s all right, Tom, it’s not loaded,” McGarry told Clarke as he playfully pointed a pistol at him, near the end of January 1916.
Both men were given an impromptu lesson in firearms safety when the supposedly safe gun went off and hit Clarke in the elbow. The bullet was surreptitiously removed, along with stray bone fragments, at the Mater Hospital the next morning. Clarke never recovered full use of his wounded right arm, forcing him to learn how to use a revolver with his left hand in time for the Rising in April, though he was magnanimous enough not to hold it against McGarry.
On a more positive note, Mac Diarmada visited McGarry in a jolly mood on the 19th April, five days before the start, telling him that Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers and reluctant ally to the IRB, had “agreed to everything” in regards to the planned uprising.
MacNeill, however, would turn out to be not as agreeable as believed.
McGarry was making his way back home from Mass on the morning of the 23rd, having stayed the night with Clarke, when he read in the press MacNeill’s orders to cancel the planned rising. McGarry walked home in a daze to find Michael Collins, having come over for breakfast. The two ate in dumbstruck silence after McGarry showed Collins the newspaper, and then they left for Liberty Hall where the IRB Military Council was struggling to comprehend the new development.
McGarry found Clarke who, for the first time since he had known him, appeared tired and crestfallen. The two walked in silence to Clarke’s home where the older man was recovered enough to lambaste MacNeill’s actions as the vilest of treacheries. When it came to addressing the subject for his BMH Statement, McGarry preferred to adopt a tone of dignified, if somewhat disdainful silence:
I do not propose to go into the pros and cons of the matter. Reams of paper have been covered with mostly ill-informed statements and speculations and other reams are I am told written for later publications. And so I leave it.
Such pros and cons, statements and speculations, were to be merely academic. Countermanding orders or no, the Rising was going ahead. Clarke was sure on that, and McGarry would be at his side for it as always.
James Rowan, a 15-year old telegraph messenger, was idling away time in the delivery room of the General Post Office (GPO) on the morning of the 24th April when the policeman on duty came in, wanting to use the phones there to contact his superiors, having just been disarmed by Irish Volunteers.
The phones were found to be out of order. Looking out of the rear window of the delivery room, Rowan and the other staff saw the rest of their colleagues and some British soldiers, also disarmed, being marshalled out into the yard. The delivery room occupants stayed where they were but when they heard a rousing cheer, the Inspector in charge risked opening the door for a peek outside.
“Quick, look at what these fellows are doing,” the Inspector called to the rest. Rowan joined him to see a cab had pulled up outside in Princes Street North, next to the GPO. Volunteers were hard at work, either smashing the windows of buildings with the butts of their rifles or lifting boxes of ammunition from the cab to hand to their comrades through the broken windows.
A stern voice demanded that the Inspector hand over his keys. The speaker emerged from the blind side of the door, holding a revolver, and Rowan saw a glimpse of a face with horn-rimmed glasses before he retreated back inside:
That face was photographed in my mind…The demander of the keys I recognised after the Rebellion from photographs in the papers giving particulars of those who had been arrested and identified as being prominently associated with the movement. He was Sean McGarry, who may be able to confirm the account of this incident.
The Inspector wisely complied and threw his keys onto the footpath. The door was slammed shut, locking the occupants in before they were released by the Volunteers later that afternoon.
McGarry left the GPO on Monday evening to take command of the Radio Transmitting Station in Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. He returned in time to lead a hunt for supplies on a jewellery store at the corner of Abbey Street (three pairs of binoculars and some watches were found and taken).
For the most part, however, McGarry remained in the post office with Clarke. He was to provide his BMH Statement with little about his activities during the fighting, pleading poor memory:
I have little to say about Easter Week. I have a very clear recollection of all that happened within my observation but after Tuesday I cannot for the life of me separate the days.
Nonetheless, he remembered enough to take the time in his BMH Statement to correct a passage in Frank O’Connor’s biography, The Big Fellow, about Clarke losing his cool under pressure. McGarry insisted that Clarke had remained resolute and determined (evidently a well-read man, McGarry also took the Breton writer Louis le Roux to task for some unflattering remarks in the latter’s book on Clarke).
On Thursday, the 27th, McGarry was part of a team sent over to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on the other side of Princes Street North from the GPO. While crossing the street, the party came under fire, with McGarry narrowly avoiding becoming a casualty. Having arrived unscathed, the men broke through the walls of the office to the neighbouring building. The need for an escape route was rapidly becoming an acute one but when the GPO was evacuated the next day, it was in the opposite direction, to Moore Street.
McGarry was one of the last to leave the post office, ensuring that the building was clear as per Clarke’s orders. He had already eaten a last meal of mutton chops with Clarke, Mac Diarmada and several others. The mood was a resolutely jolly one, McGarry jokingly asking if he would go to Hell for eating meat on this particular Friday.
After the withdrawal, it took a while for McGarry to find Clarke again in Moore Street. Clarke and MacDermott were discussing the possibility of surrender, the former dolefully quiet, the latter close to tears.
McGarry felt too drained to contribute a word to the discussion. Only recently he had been weighing up the odds with a wounded and bedridden Connolly for a successful counterattack on British-held barricades, and now it had come to this. While the negotiations to surrender were on, Clarke, seconded by Mac Diarmada, gave permission for the rest to escape. Though McGarry passed this on to others, he remained where he was, committed to the cause and the event he had helped set in motion.
After the Rising
After the surrender, McGarry was led away by British soldiers to Richmond Barracks along with Clarke and others. En route, Clarke was able to pass on a hastily scribbled note to his wife, via an obliging British soldier. The letter expressed his pride in the Rising and the men who had helped him carry it out: “Sean [Mac Diarmada] is with me and McG [McGarry] – They are all heroes.”
Upon reaching the barracks, McGarry was observed being picked out by police officers along with the other leaders such as Clarke, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Mac Diarmada in a backhanded tribute to his importance.
As Prisoner #28, McGarry was court-martialled in a batch of four that included Willie Pearse. All but Pearse pleaded not guilty. McGarry’s defence that he had known nothing about anything until the occupation of the GPO, after which he had been only a messenger with no position or rank of any kind, belied his true role behind the scenes.
His defence must have been convincing. Though all four prisoners were found ‘Guilty. Death’, McGarry was singled out for a recommendation of mercy on the grounds that he had been “misled by the leaders” of the Rising. He was sentenced instead to eight years of penal servitude.
So quickly had the court-martial been held that prisoners were still arriving in Richmond Barracks. There was some astonishment at the extent of the sentence, although it was a far lighter sentence than Clarke’s, who McGarry saw for the last time on the day before his mentor’s execution.
 Lynch, pp. 94-5 ; Kelly, Patrick J. (BMH / WS 781), pp. 49-50 ; Irish Times, Irish Independent 05/03/1919 ; Morrissey., Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014), p. 144
 McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368), p. 26 ; biographical details from White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James) ; Gleeson, Joseph (BMH / WS 367), p. 8
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. 211. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html ; McGarry, pp. 21-2
 Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014), p. 150
 Cosgrave, Liam T. (BMH / WS 268), p. 8 ; McGarry, p. 26
Bureau of Military History Statements
Braniff, Daniel, WS 222
Cosgrave, Liam T., 268
Daly, Seamus, WS 360
Daly, William D., WS 291
Dore, Eamon T., WS 392
Gleeson, Joseph, WS 367
Henderson, Frank, 821
Kelly, Patrick J., WS 781
Lynch, Michael, WS 511
McGarry, Seán, WS 368
O’Reilly, Michael William, WS 886
Rowan, James, 871
Sullivan, Mrs. T.M., WS 653
Barton, Brian. The Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010)
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)
Figgis, Darrell. Recollections of the Irish War (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., [1927?])
Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)
Litton, Helen. 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2014)
Morrissey, Thomas J. Lord Mayor of Dublin (1917–1924), Patriot and Man of Peace (Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2014)
Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)
White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)