Book Review: Markievicz: Prison Letters & Rebel Writings, by Constance Markievicz (edited by Lindie Naughton) (2018)

Markievicz_cover“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.

The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.

Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.

“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.

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Countess Markievicz, posing in uniform with a pistol

But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:

I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.

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Seán MacBride

But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:

The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.

Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.

To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”

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Markievicz speaking at a rally

On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”

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Eva Gore-Boothe, Markievicz’s sister

Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.

“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:

But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.

The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”

Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (13/04/2019)

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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.”

macbride
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]

Deasy
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, and all the pair could do was sit in awkward silence, Lynch on the edge of Deasy’s bed, both too stunned to say a word.[41]

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

attack-on-four-courts
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

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

A Pause in the War

Deasy
Liam Deasy

When peace came to Ireland on the 11th July 1921, it was sudden, unexpected and, for some in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), not entirely welcome.

Two days earlier, Liam Deasy, the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, had been in Togher, a parish south of Cork City, overseeing a staff meeting of the Dunmanway Battalion, one of the six that made up that IRA Brigade. Deasy was in the process of drawing up plans with the Dunmanway men when the schoolteacher, whose house they were using, rushed in with a copy of that morning’s edition of the Cork Examiner.

A Truce between the IRA and the Crown forces was announced, due to come into effect in a couple of days’ time. The news was received in stunned silence, each man struggling to take in the enormity of what he had heard. “No trace of emotion, not the slightest sign of enthusiasm, betrayed themselves in the reaction of my colleagues,” was how Deasy remembered the scene.

Attempting to sort out his feelings, Deasy believed he would have opposed such a détente – had it been up to him – unless a satisfactory outcome was guaranteed. Since he was under no illusion as to how much the British Government would be prepared to concede, the ceasefire could be no more than temporary, useful only as breathing space before the next step on the journey towards complete independence and the Irish Republic.

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British soldiers in Dublin during the War of Independence

Still, Deasy was human enough to feel relief at the break in almost two years of life ‘on the run’ and the chance to move around freely without fear of arrest or death. But he was also concerned that such respite might prove problematic in terms of discipline. The same men who had stoically endured hardship and danger might not be so eager for more once the Truce ended and the war resumed.

Such were the thoughts and concerns swirling around Deasy’s head as he left Togher and travelled in a pony and trap towards Ballylickey, where he had made his latest Brigade headquarters. Accompanying him was Tom Barry, the famed flying column commander. When the two men reached Ballylickey, they found a dispatch waiting for them.

It was from Liam Lynch, the O/C of the First Southern Division and their superior officer. Both men were ordered to proceed to the Division Headquarters at the village of Glantane, to begin their new assignments, with Barry as the liaison officer with the British Army and Deasy to assist Lynch on the newly expanded Division staff. These instructions snapped the pair out of the fog of surprise, reminding them that their duty had not yet come to an end.[1]

Preparing for the Next Round

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Lynch often had this effect on people. “I was very impressed with Lynch,” recalled one contemporary. “He was always so meticulous about his appearance and dress… At the same time, he was a strong disciplinarian.”[2]

Nothing exemplified this exacting attitude better than the days immediately following the Truce. Lynch allowed himself or his men no relaxation, estimating that he had at best three or four weeks, possibly six, within which to do six months’ worth of work.

When a house in Glantane became vacant, the First Southern Division HQ quickly moved in. Besides mealtimes, the only pauses in the workload came on Sunday evenings when Lynch would suggest a walk in the countryside. Anything more was out of the question. It would amount, as he wrote to his brother Tom, to a “National sin when there is work to be done” – and there was much to do.[3]

A rare break, however unwillingly, came when he was arrested by a British patrol on the 18th August. A quick call to Dublin Castle was enough to secure his release and the continuation of the Truce. In the meantime, he had enjoyed chatting with the Black-and-Tans, jovially discussing with his captors the possibility of reacquainting with them on the battlefield.[4]

Such distinctions between friend and foe would become increasingly blurred, though not in a way anyone could have imagined.

General Direction

As for the talks between President Éamon de Valera and the British Prime Minister, and the subsequent negotiations in London by the Irish Plenipotentiaries, Lynch and his staff had nothing more than a passing interest.

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Cathal Brugha

Even the offer of a promotion from Dublin only served to irritate Lynch. On the 6th December, Lynch wrote to Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defence, to turn down the offer of commander-in-chief. The reason given – “after serious consideration,” Lynch stressed – was such an elevation would put him too much under the thumb of the Cabinet, to the detriment, Lynch feared, of effective military work: “I feel that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff cannot do their duty when they are not placed in a position to do so.”

The current frustration was a case in point. “At the present moment when war may be resumed at short notice I have got no general direction,” Lynch complained to Brugha. Lynch was not to be led astray from his priorities.[5]

That same day, Lynch was to receive news of another unwelcome distraction from the war with Britain: the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Plenipotentiaries. It did not take long for the First Southern Division to decide about it. At a meeting in Cork on the 10th December, four days after the signing, the Division staff unanimously adopted a resolution:

The Treaty as it is drafted is not acceptable to us as representing the Army in the 1st Divisional Area, and we urge its rejection by the Government.[6]

The resolution was sent to Richard Mulcahy as the IRA Chief of Staff, with instructions for it to be forwarded to the Cabinet. Lynch signed it as ‘Liam Ó Loingisg’, along with the members of his staff (including Deasy) and, in an impressive display of solidarity, all the Officers Commanding (O/Cs) of the Division brigades – the five from Cork, the three from Kerry and the sole ones from West Limerick and Waterford.

According to Deasy, this resolution was a step not taken lightly, given the implied criticism of Michael Collins – one of the signatories of the Treaty – who Lynch and his Divisional colleagues otherwise held in high regard.[7]

The Brotherhood

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Michael Collins

Nonetheless, Lynch could not have been completely surprised. Collins had warned him to that effect a month earlier in November 1921. In a session of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Parnell Place, Cork, Collins had taken Lynch and his closest aides, Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, aside for a private chat.

Given the impossibility for either military or diplomatic actions to achieve complete independence for Ireland, Collins told them, compromises would inevitably have to be made. Perturbed, Lynch asked Collins not to repeat such a thing in front of the others, lest things ‘blow up’ there.[8]

In Dublin, a month later, on the 10th December, Lynch attended a conclave of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s ruling body. Two days afterwards, the Council issued a note to its adherents. For such a momentous decision, the instructions were surprisingly terse, saying only that the Supreme Council had decided that the Treaty should be ratified. However, those of the IRB who were also public representatives could act as they saw fit. That was all, for now.[9]

For Lynch, this decision was a profoundly disappointing one. It had also alienated him from the rest of the Supreme Council. As he recounted in a letter to O’Donoghue on the 11th December: “The situation is I stood alone at the meeting I attended.”

As far as Lynch knew, the First Southern Division might also standing apart from the rest of the IRA. Nonetheless, the “position I have taken up I mean to stand by.”

“Too Much Gas”

Florence
Florence O’Donoghue

Despite his bullish words, Lynch attempted to strike a pensive chord to O’Donoghue: “I do not recommend immediate war as our front is broken.”

Lynch suspected that the Treaty would be carried by a majority in the Dáil, in which case the minority would fall in line, a principle that must also apply within the Army “or we are lost.” For all his determination on behalf of the Irish Republic, it was the IRA and the threat to its cherished unity that was his immediate concern.

In regards to Collins: “I admire Mick as a soldier and a man. Thank God all parties can agree to differ.”[10]

Lynch repeated his conciliatory tone towards Collins in a letter to his brother Tom, written on the 12th: “Sorry I must agree to differ with Collins, that does not make us worse friends.” Should the war with Britain be resumed, Lynch had no doubt that Collins would continue to do his part for Irish freedom.

Not that friendship lessened Lynch’s convictions one bit: “First of all I must assure you that my attitude is now as always, to fight on for the recognition of the Republic,” even if that meant fighting on by himself. Should the Government accept the Treaty, as it seemed likely, then he would bide his time until they could “strike for final victory at most favourable opportunity.”

Lynch was looking forward to the time when ‘war-war’ could take over from ‘jaw-jaw’: “Speeches and fine talk do not go far these days,” he grumbled. “We have already too much gas.”[11]

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Anti-Treaty cartoon, depicting Michael Collins

“My God, It’s Terrible”

The Dáil debates over the Treaty began in Dublin on the 14th December 1921. Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue received invitations to attend and did so, even though none were Teachtaí Dála (TDs) and thus in no position to speak. Lynch might have been had he stood in the general election of the previous year, as requested by the East Cork Sinn Féin.

However, when no word of acceptance from Lynch was received, another man, Séamus Fitzgerald, was selected (and elected) instead. When Fitzgerald chanced upon Lynch during the Dáil debates, the latter said that he had never received the offer, but reassured Fitzgerald that he was quite happy that he had been the one elected.[12]

image
National Concert Hall, Dublin, the site of the Dáil debates when it was the National University

Lynch was probably sincere in this, considering how little he thought of ‘speeches and fine talk’. The unedifying spectacle of “men who a few short months before were fighting as comrades side by side, now indulging in bitter recrimination, rancour, invective charges and counter charges” – as Deasy put it – was unlikely to have made him regret his missed opportunity in politics.[13]

(They were not the only ones so disgusted. Todd Andrews, who would later be Lynch’s aide-de-camp, found the debates so dispiriting that he walked away, convinced that only the Army could salvage anything out of the mess that politics had made.[14])

Dáil debate on the Treaty, 1921-22
Crowds outside the National University as the Dáil debated inside

At least Lynch had the opportunity while in Dublin to meet up with like-minded IRA officers. The house at 71 Heytesbury Street had long been used as a refuge for Volunteers on the run. Lynch had been nursed there through two illnesses. It was only fitting, then, for it to be the place of a reunion between him and Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows, all of whom, like Lynch, held senior positions in the IRA.

Lynch, O’Malley noted, “was square and determined looking. He tightened his pince-nez glasses and he muttered: ‘My God, it’s terrible, terrible.’”

Lynch was the first to break the sombre silence in the room. “I wish we knew what the other divisional officers thought and felt. That would make things easier.”

“Have you seen Collins?” asked O’Connor. “He was looking for you.”

“Yes, I have,” replied Lynch. “I met him and Eoin O’Duffy. They said the Treaty would give breathing space, allow the army to arm and equip, then we could declare war whenever a suitable opportunity came.”

“They mean to enforce the Treaty,” said a more sceptical O’Connor, “but we must organise.”

mellows
Liam Mellows

The chief problem, O’Malley said, was knowing who to trust. O’Connor was in favour of breaking away from the IRA GHQ control as soon as the Dáil debates were over. Nothing good could come from them or GHQ anymore. For now, they could rely only on each other. Robinson and O’Malley agreed. Mellows, in contrast, was content to wait, confident that, in any case, the IRA would never accept the Treaty, and that would be the end of the matter.

Short of a definite plan of action, the men could do little but agree to keep in touch before departing for the night.[15]

Lynch kept to this wait-and-see attitude when he later met with Dan Breen, who urged for them to forget the Truce and resume the war with Britain at once. Seeing Lynch’s lack of enthusiasm, Breen left in a huff.[16]

A Chance

O’Malley had first met Lynch in September 1920 while visiting Co. Cork as part of his travels as a GHQ organiser. Then the O/C of the Second Cork Brigade, Lynch had impressed him as quiet but commanding, with O’Malley accompanying him in the capture of Mallow Barracks.[17]

But the two men never grew close, their relationship remaining a coolly professional one. This lack of shared sympathy would bedevil the Anti-Treatyites, hamstringing their attempts to coordinate effectively.

The mood amongst the anti-Treaty IRA had gone from bad to worse by the time Mulcahy summoned them for a sit-down in Banba Hall, Parnell Square, in January 1922. O’Malley was so suspicious that he went in with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat in case of arrest. Inside, the attendees sat in a semi-circle, the Anti-Treatyites to the right, their pro-Treaty counterparts on the left. Such self-segregation from the start did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

banba-hallWhen Mulcahy began by saying that the Free State intended to keep the name of the Republican Army, O’Connor cuttingly replied that a name did not make it so. Jim O’Donovan proceeded to call Collins a traitor. Collins leapt to his feet in fury amidst cries of ‘withdraw’ and ‘apologise’.

After Mulcahy restored some semblance of peace, he made a conciliatory suggestion: the Anti-Treatyites present could nominate two of their own to attend future GHQ meetings. When they withdrew to another room to talk this over, Lynch said he was in agreement. The others were not, preferring to make a clean break by setting up a command of their own, GHQ be damned, just as O’Connor had first suggested in Heytesbury Street.

Lynch stood his ground and threatened to go his own way. As the First Southern Division had the most manpower, controlled the most territory and was among the best armed, the other leaders had no choice but to back down. They had been cowed at the first challenge and by one of their own, something which none of them had anticipated.

Stalemated, the other Anti-Treatyites grudgingly agreed to give Mulcahy’s olive-branch a try. When they returned to a waiting Mulcahy to announce their decision, he was magnanimous enough to promise a convention for the IRA in two months’ time, where things could hopefully be straightened out for good.[18]

Limerick Takeover

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

As per Mulcahy’s proposal, O’Malley was selected as one of the Anti-Treatyites’ representatives. But O’Malley had little desire to be sitting in on meetings at GHQ, a body he had come to dismiss as an irrelevance at best, a hindrance at worst. Many of his peers were inclined to agree, prompting Lynch to do his utmost to prevent the widening gap between the anti and pro-Treaty factions from splitting into open warfare.

The first thing O’Malley did after his departure from Dublin was to call a meeting of the Second Southern Division. As their O/C, he placed the question of continued GHQ control to his brigades, of which one (East Limerick) was prepared to remain loyal, with the other four (Mid-Limerick, Kilkenny, Mid-Tipperary and South Tipperary) agreeing that the situation had become intolerable.[19]

Secure in the backing of most of his Division, O’Malley henceforth ignored all calls to bring him back to Dublin, including the summons to his own court-martial when GHQ finally realised his desertion. To make the estrangement official, the Mid-Limerick Brigade issued a proclamation, headed ‘Republican of Ireland’, on the 18th February, which explained that since the majority of GHQ were attempting to subvert the Republic, the Brigade could no longer recognise its authority.[20]

The dissenters were prepared to match their words with action. On the 7th March, the Limerick Chronicle informed its readers that “events in Limerick during the past couple of days have been rather significant, and in the minds of the citizens have created a certain amount of tension.”

Not that the citizens in question needed a newspaper to inform them of this. Two days before, IRA units from the GHQ-defying brigades entered the city and occupied a number of hotels as well as the disused wing of the District Mental Hospital – O’Malley, for one, appreciated the irony of that choice, given the state of the times.[21]

King John’s Castle remained in pro-Treaty hands. O’Malley had planned to take the medieval fortification in a surprise night-raid with the connivance of a sympathetic member of the garrison who was to open the gates to them at 11:30 pm. By 1 am, the inside man had yet to appear and O’Malley, fed up with waiting in the cold rain, allowed his sodden men to retire.[22]

king_johns_castle
King John’s Castle, Limerick

Limerick Standoff

At least the Anti-Treatyites had the comforts of bed and board that their hotel strongpoints provided. A second proclamation was sent to the Limerick Chronicle on the 9th March, explaining further the reasons for the occupation.

Mulcahy was blamed for refusing to allow them to occupy the barracks recently vacated by the Crown forces, sending instead officers chosen on account of their loyalty to GHQ rather than to the Republic: “He seeks to ensure that no matter how the coming IRA Convention decides, the Provisional Government will hold all areas for the Free State Party.”

To prevent such opportunism, the Anti-Treatyites of Limerick had brought in their comrades from Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Clare, Kerry, Waterford and Galway. The city had rapidly become a microcosm of the Treaty divide.[23]

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IRA men on top of an armoured car in Limerick in the wake of the British withdrawal

O’Malley felt Limerick was secure enough to briefly visit Dublin to meet Rory O’Connor – not, significantly, Lynch – and apprise him of the situation. O’Connor was encouraging but otherwise refused to commit himself, preferring instead, to O’Malley’s annoyance, to watch how things unfolded.

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Eoin O’Duffy

Meanwhile, Mulcahy and O’Duffy had travelled to Limerick on a mission of their own. The former had by then been promoted to Minister of Defence, with the latter stepping in his shoes as Chief of Staff. That two such senior figures had been sent showed how seriously the Provisional Government was taking the matter. Invites for anti-Treaty officers to meet with Mulcahy and O’Duffy in the Castle were declined, and the two GHQ men returned to Dublin with things as frayed as before.[24]

Within the Provisional Government, President Arthur Griffith was advocating a firm line, having come to believe that war was inevitable. In the only formal speech to the Cabinet that one witness, Ernest Blythe, remembered him making, Griffith argued that as they were now a government, with all the accompanying responsibilities, they had a duty to assert their authority.

Limerick Compromise

Collins, on whom the final decision rested (Blythe had no doubt about that), looked inclined to agree. Mulcahy then intervened, as Blythe recalled:

Mulcahy apparently had a great belief in Liam Lynch and a great confidence that he understood him and could rely on him, and he put forward the proposal of handing over the Limerick barracks to Liam Lynch, who would hold them at the disposal of the Government, subject to certain considerations.[25]

Relieved at finding a way to avoid conflict with his old comrades, Collins accepted the suggestion, much to Griffith’s annoyance.

On the 11th March, the citizens of Limerick learned “with intense relief”, in the words of the Limerick Chronicle, that a settlement had been reached. Although the newspaper did not know it, Lynch had taken the step of visiting the city to meet with officers of either faction, together and individually.

O’Malley gave no details in his memoirs, but whatever Lynch said was sufficient. Both sides pulled back from the brink and agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the city. The military barracks was to be in the hands of Pro-Treatyites until the building was entrusted to those local IRA units who had remained neutral during the manoeuvrings of the week before. Ironically, the last pro-Treaty men to leave the city were of the East Limerick Brigade, the only one in O’Malley’s Division to stay with the GHQ.[26]

The underlying conflict had not been resolved, merely postponed, but it showed that compromise was possible if there were those willing to try.

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Anti-Treaty IRA members outside a hotel in Limerick

Press Relations

A month later, Lynch felt enough had been said about the Limerick flashpoint for him to set the record straight in a letter to the newspapers on the 27th April: “I have always avoided publicity, but my name has been brought forward so much recently that I am reluctantly forced to deal with the matter.”

For all the stated disdain for attention, Lynch was determined that he receive his due credit. It was less for his own sake and more to deny unearned plaudits claimed by others:

Regarding the statement by Beggar Bush’s Headquarters [GHQ] to the effect that they had done everything for unity in the Army, and that the other side had done everything possible to break it, I am sure all officers of high command in the Free State forces can verify my emphatic assertion that no officer did more than myself to maintain a united Army.

“It was a happy consummation for me to see about 700 armed troops on either side who were about to engage in mortal combat, eventually leave Limerick as comrades,” Lynch continued.

‘Comrades’ may have been an overstatement – O’Malley, for one, had threatened to arrest the dawdling officer in charge of the East Limerick men if they did not hurry up and go. But, as the Anti-Treatyites had been planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the Castle as a prelude to storming inside, ‘mortal combat’ had indeed been avoided.

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Arthur Griffith

Lynch had choice things to say about Griffith, who he accused of trying “hard to press the issue in a manner which would have resulted in fearful slaughter.” Considering Griffith’s hard-line stance to the Cabinet, this was not an unreasonable allegation to make.

But it was the “Junior officers of the old G.H.Q. staff” who Lynch laid the blame for the Limerick standoff as well as the present lamentable conditions. For when Lynch was writing, the IRA Convention for March had been banned by Mulcahy on the orders of Griffith, forcing the previously reserved Lynch to decide exactly where he stood.[27]

A New Leadership

O’Malley did not consider the proscription of the IRA Convention to mean much to him. The Second Southern Division, after all, already outside of anyone else’s interference as far as he was concerned.

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Joe McKelvey

When O’Connor called him to his office in Dublin in an urgent dispatch, O’Malley accepted. There, he found Lynch and Deasy, along with some others, including Oscar Traynor and Joe McKelvey, the latter being the O/C of the Third Northern Division (covering Belfast, Antrim and Down) which had added its strength to Lynch and O’Malley’s two Southern ones.

Having previously played peacemaker, Lynch now threw caution to the winds. He suggested they hold the Convention anyway, regardless of what GHQ or the Provisional Government ordered. All the other IRA commands would be notified, whether they were friendly or not, so they could have at least the option of attending.

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Michael Kilroy

All agreed. Michael Kilroy, O/C of the Mayo Brigade, suggested that they elect a Chief of Staff, at least in the interim before the Convention. Lynch was selected, with O’Connor as Director of Engineering, Mellows as Quartermaster-General, Jim O’Donovan (he who had called Collins a traitor), as Director of Chemicals, Seán Russell as Director of Munitions, and O’Malley as Director of Organisation. If GHQ refused to uphold the Republic anymore, then they would create a counter-General Headquarters that would.

Lynch next informed the rest that they would now have to remain in Dublin. As Traynor was O/C of the Dublin Brigade, Lynch tasked him with providing headquarters for them in his city. Traynor suggested the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square. The opposition to the Treaty now had a leadership.[28]

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Parnell Square, Dublin (present day)

The Rule of .45

The Convention went ahead as originally intended on the 26th March in the Mansion House. Annie Farrington, the proprietress of Barry’s Hotel where many of the delegates stayed, remembered the “terrific excitement. There was great diversity of views and they were arguing it out.” Thankfully, none of these arguments ever came to blows.

Lynch was among the visitors. The others warned Farrington “not to say anything flippant before him, as he was very religious.” The respect they held for him was obvious: “They looked upon him as a saint.”[29]

Outside the Mansion House, an armoured car had been parked, its squat bulk contrasting against the cheery front of the building with scarlet geraniums in boxes set by tall lampposts and the freshly painted coat of arms above the main door. Inside was similarly contradictory, the beautiful rooms with their elegant furniture, crystal chandelier and oil-paintings of former Lord Lieutenants at odds with the grim, agitated mood of the delegates.

When one objected to the lack of rules concerning a particular suggestion, another man replied tersely: “We have the rule of .45,” meaning the .45 calibre automatics on prominent display in the Same Browne belts slung over many a tweed jacket. It was an impolitic remark but at least an honest one.[30]

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Mansion House, Dublin

A Hardening Stance

Numbers-wise, the convention was a success. It had attracted – in the estimate of the Freeman’s Journal – 220 delegates, representing nineteen brigades, all of whom prepared to defy Mulcahy’s threat that any Army attendees would be suspended.[31]

In terms of soothing the nascent tensions, however, the event, in the words of Joseph Lawless, “proved itself to be a fiasco.” While Lawless did not attend the Convention – as an officer in the newly-formed National Army, he for one was mindful of Mulcahy’s warning – Lawless listened to numerous discussions in Fleming’s Hotel, another establishment where the delegates were either staying or called in at.

Despite his military commission, Lawless was able to mingle with his anti-Treaty friends. But there was little disguising the fact that they now regarded him as an enemy, however joking they were in their references to him as a ‘Free Stater’.

Lynch, Lawless thought when he saw him, “was concerned and somewhat perturbed at this turn of events.” Things were clearly not moving in a direction to his liking. Others were less finicky as they openly talked about their intentions to pack the Convention with delegates in order to shift the Army into a definite anti-Treaty stance. Not that the Convention would necessarily be the last word:

When it became apparent that their plane [sic] was unlikely to succeed, their interest in the convention lessened, and from the flippant remarks made about it, it seemed clear that they did not feel bound by anything that happened there unless it accorded with their own views.

A tendency to ignore unwanted rulings, even those from their own side, would prove a problem for the anti-Treaty IRA in its increasingly cavalier attitude towards discipline. Even more worrying was the talk at the Convention, however vague, of civil war. Even so, Lawless did not think that anyone believed that such a dire possibility could or would really occur.[32]

Reaffirmed Allegiances

Guards posted at the doors to the Mansion House had barred anyone from the press, ensuring that the public was left in the dark as to what had gone on inside. Shortly afterwards, the Convention attendees moved to amend that by publishing the resolutions they had passed, giving some indication to the rest of the country as to the general direction they intended to take the IRA:

  1. That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
  2. That it should be maintained as the Army of the Irish Republic, under an Executive appointed by the convention.
  3. That the Army shall be under the supreme control of such Executive, which shall draft a constitution for submission to a subsequent convention.[33]
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Richard Mulcahy

There was no room here for GHQ, the Dáil or anything that smacked of the Treaty. Forty years later, Deasy would have the opportunity to pose a question to Mulcahy, who confirmed that it had been on his advice that the Provisional Government banned the Convention, convinced as he was that it would only lead to further division and turmoil. Deasy argued back that such a heavy-handed move did nothing but offend those who were otherwise moderate in their opposition to the Treaty, Lynch included.

Whether Mulcahy had been correct, if unsuccessful, in trying to nip the problem in the bud, or if he unwittingly pushed many down the path he was hoping to avoid, is one of the many unanswerable questions that riddle this contentious period in Irish history.[34]

Influence and Respect

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Oscar Traynor

A temporary Executive which had been appointed during the Convention met the following day in Gardiner Street. After arriving late with the other members of the First Southern Division who were on the Executive, Lynch surprised the rest by announcing that there were too many Dubliners on the board and too few from his own Division.

Upset at this brusqueness, Oscar Traynor and Joseph O’Connor, both officers in the Dublin IRA, withdrew from the meeting. It took a day or two for the pair to swallow their pride and return to help the rest of the Executive iron out the details for the next convention on the 9th April.[35]

Lynch once again had his way, when three of his allies – Deasy, O’Donoghue and another Corkman, Tom Hales – were among the sixteen men elected to the Executive. When asked beforehand as to the reasons for the April convention, Lynch replied that he wanted to ensure that those particular three were with him on the new ruling board.

It was a measure of the trust in which he had in his Corkonian comrades. At the end of this latest convention, the new leadership body met and reaffirmed Lynch as their Chief of Staff – not that there were any other contenders – with Deasy replacing him as O/C of the First Southern Division.[36]

Despite this easy assumption of power, Lynch’s authority was not quite as assured as his rank might apply. The problem was, in the opinion of Joseph O’Connor, that while there were many worthy individuals on the Executive, none – Lynch included – were strong enough to rule the others.

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Group photograph of anti-Treaty IRA members at the Mansion House, 1922, with Liam Lynch (fourth from the left in the front row), Florence O’Donoghue (left of Lynch) and Liam Deasy (right of Lynch)

Fault lines

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Rory O’Connor

Consequently, cracks emerged, out of which two main factions were formed, with neither feeling it necessary to accommodate the other when they disagreed. “The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor remembered the sorry situation.[37]

This was despite the advantage Lynch held through his position as Chief of Staff. According to O’Malley, Lynch “possessed the same influence as any of the other members, although perhaps his words were listened to with added respect.”[38]

But it might be equally true to say that Lynch had no more influence than the others, and even that was often grudgingly allowed.

As for respect, it was to be in short supply, as Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue found themselves under suspicion by their more hard-line Executive peers, most notably Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Séumas Robinson. While the latter group had lost all respect for former comrades like Collins, Mulcahy and O’Duffy, they gave only scant more regard towards Lynch and his cohorts, seeing them as well-meaning but lacking in the necessary zeal to be counted on.[39]

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride summed up this attitude of wary condescension in his memoirs. The future government minister admitted that he did not know Lynch very well, only that he appeared to be the strong, silent type. MacBride assumed he was capable, otherwise he would not have risen to where he was. The officers under his command, at least, respected him considerably. But, all the same, MacBride could not help regarding his Chief of Staff as, at heart, a bit of a compromiser.[40]

Which may say more about MacBride, but it showed the difficulties Lynch would face in guiding his men through the difficult times ahead – men who would show little patience for any sort of guidance.

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

References

[1] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992), pp. 312-5

[2] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 375-6

[3] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 27-30 ; Liam Lynch Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 36,251/19

[4] NLI, MS 36,251/18

[5] Richard Mulcahy Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P7a/5

[6] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, NLI, MS 31,239

[7] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 33-4

[8] Ibid, p. 95

[9] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,244

[10] Ibid, MS 31,240/1

[11] Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/22

[12] Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

[13] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, p. 32

[14] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 93

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 96 ; O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[16] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981), p. 179

[17] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 237

[18] O’Malley. The Singing Flame, pp. 70-2

[19] Ibid, p. 72

[20] Limerick Chronicle, 18/02/1922

[21] Ibid, 07/03/1922

[22] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 76-8

[23] Limerick Chronicle, 09/03/1922

[24] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 80-1

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 142-3

[26] Limerick Chronicle, 11/03/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 82

[27] Irish Independent, 27/04/1922 ; O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 81-82

[28] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 83-5

[29] Farrington, Annie (BMH / WS 749), pp. 5-6

[30] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 148

[31] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[32] Lawless, Joseph V. (BMH / WS 1,043), pp. 436-7

[33] Freeman’s Journal, 27/03/1922

[34] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 38-9

[35] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 3-4

[36] MacEoin, p. 291 ; O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 224

[37] O’Connor, pp. 4, 10

[38] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 86

[39] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 39-40

[40] MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005), p. 93

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Independence (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1981)

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

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

Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-1921 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books Limited, 1992)

MacBride, Seán. That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Currach Press, 2005)

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 O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

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

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

 

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Limerick Chronicle

 

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Farrington, Annie, WS 749

Fitzgerald, Seamus, WS 1,737

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1,043

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

 

National Library of Ireland Collections

Florence O’Donoghue Papers

Liam Lynch Papers

 

University College Dublin Archive

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Book Review: The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A. Costello, by David McCullagh (2011)

John_Costello_Book_CoverOne possible lesson to take from this book is that politics is something best left to politicians. Shortly after the 1957 electoral defeat of John A. Costello’s second and final coalition government, the former Taoiseach was walking along the Dublin quays with two other senior Fine Gael men, James Dillon and Patrick Lindsay.

As they passed a pub, Dillon remarked about how he had never been in one except his own which he had sold after observing how much money his customers were spending which could have gone instead into family essentials. Costello chipped in with a story of the one time he had been in a pub when a bottle of orange juice had almost been too much for him.

To the worldlier Lindsay, the pub was “the countryman’s club, where everything is discussed and where contacts are made.” The exchange he had witnessed told him all too much as to why Fine Gael “are going in this direction today and why we are out of touch with the people.”

Also telling was Costello’s subsequent performance as a part-time leader of the opposition. An exceptionally gifted barrister, his success at attracting briefs in Cork – no small achievement for the Dubliner Costello, given how hard it was for outsiders to break into its insular legal world – led to him dividing his time between court hearings there and Dáil attendance in Dublin. Costello was obliged to travel to Cork on one Sunday evening and then return to Dublin on Wednesday evening for a Budget vote before returning to Cork early on Thursday morning.

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John A. Costello in a barrister’s robes and wig

It was an impressive display of time management – when it could be done. At other times, Costello was forced to prioritise one duty over another, such as when he spent three weeks in Cork with the High Court at the expense of two weeks of Dáil sittings. His party followed his example. Attendance of Fine Gael TDs was poor, and those present often preferred to read quietly or talk amongst themselves. Fianna Fáil could not have asked for a more obliging opposition.

If any study of Fianna Fáil can equate to a study of 20th Irish politics, given the sheer regularity of the party in power (only time will tell if its current malaise will prove to be a passing phase or a more lasting decline), then, by that same token, a look at Ireland’s also-rans can give an insight into what not to do.

While it would be simplistic to attribute Fine Gael’s problems to a reticence towards having a pint or two, its leaders have displayed a remarkably consistency over the years in not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Enda Kenny’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory following his inept 2007 debate with Bertie Ahern, and Alan Duke’s high-minded-but-disastrous ‘Tallaght Strategy’ are two examples that spring to mind.

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Richard Mulcahy

As the title to McCullagh’s book suggests, Costello was an unusual choice for the top job but then, the 1948 general election produced an unusual government, being an alliance of ‘everyone but Fianna Fáil’. Due to his record of executions during the Civil War, Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy was an unacceptable choice for Taoiseach but Labour and Clann na Poblachta were supportive of Costello as a compromise candidate, thanks in no small part to his friendship with leading figures in both parties.

The man of the hour was oblivious to the discussions being made on his behalf and was not pleased when the offer was broached to him. Costello’s aversion stemmed in part to financial considerations. With a family to support, he was reluctant to put aside the money he was making at the Bar for the uncertainty of politics. But his main concern, as he confided to his son and with a humility rarely found in politics, was his lack of self-confidence and the “fear amounting almost to terror that I would be a flop as Taoiseach.”

When his suggested alternatives were brushed away by his colleagues, and faced with their unanimous support (not something every prospective leader can claim), Costello finally gave in. Never one to let things get to his head, Costello responded to the rapturous ovation at the following Fine Gael meeting by pointing at Mulcahy and saying: “This is the man you should be applauding, not me.”

Compared to the likes of Éamon de Valera, who had only to look within his heart to know what the Irish people wanted, or Charles Haughey (enough said), such humility makes for a refreshing change. The question remained, however, as to whether, to steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, the new Taoiseach would have much to be humble about.

The first Inter-Party Government has largely been remembered for two of its initiatives: the Mother and Child Scheme and the 1948 declaration of the Irish Republic. McCullagh treats his subject’s role in both sympathetically but not uncritically.

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The Cabinet of the 1948-1951 Inter-Party Government

If Costello was obsequious in his deference to the Church then, as McCullagh reminds us, that was to be entirely expected in those pre-Father Ted times. As for the repeal of the External Relations Act, it finally put paid to a long-standing ambiguity – was Ireland in the Commonwealth or not? – but the abruptness with which Costello announced it and his unnecessarily defensive manner did him no favours.

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Éamon de Valera

Costello’s government fell apart by the bare minimum of Dáil seats when a handful of Independent TDs were wooed over to Fianna Fáil. As part of the new cost-cutting policies under Éamon de Valera, Costello lost his state car. A measure of the man can be gauged by how he allowed de Valera to not only keep his when the roles were reversed a couple of years later and it was Fianna Fáil’s turn on the Opposition benches but also the insurance on the exact same terms as before.

The two years before Costello’s return to office was perhaps the highlight of his dual careers as barrister and politician. As the former, Costello defended The Leader journal against the libel suit by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Costello’s victory for his client after the devastating cross-examination against Kavanagh on the stand did not deter the two from becoming friends.

The Kavanagh case is one of the few times McCullagh detours into Costello’s legal work. Charles Lysaght has criticised the book in the Irish Independent for this abridgement, pointing out how Costello had been Ireland’s leading barrister in the 1930s to the early ‘50s. But then, how many readers would be as interested in Costello the lawyer as they would be in Costello the statesman?

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John A. Costello

On the public stage, Costello was able to hammer away at his enemies’ austerity measures (as popular then as today) until a succession of by-election defeats for the government forced a general election. That the outgoing Fianna Fáil administration had been briefer than Costello’s (who was not above highlighting such a fact) was sweet vindication against those who had griped that such a hybrid as a coalition government could never last.

But gaining power is not the same as handling it. The economic gloom deepened, prompting a reverse situation from before, with the Inter-Party Government losing ground through lost by-elections. Already depressed by the death of his wife, Costello adopted an increasingly impervious note: “I have had so many disappointments that one more does not make any difference.”

The one that did was the use of the Irish Army and Gardai against resurgent IRA violence along the Border. The staunchly Republican Clann na Poblachta, who had been propping up the government as before, responded with a vote of no confidence.

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Seán MacBride

Ironies abounded. Costello had always despised Partition to the point of being rude to some hapless RUC officers who were rescuing his car from a flooded road while he was on holiday in the North. Seán MacBride had initially demurred from the censure motion until pressure from his party forced his hand. He feared that a rebounding De Valera would be even harder on the IRA – which, of course, he was. McCullaugh quotes one Republican activist who was interned throughout the subsequent Fianna Fáil administration that at least under Costello he had been assured of a fair trial.

With no choice but to call a general election, Costello kept a brave face amidst the crushing defeat, with the Soldiers of Destiny snagging 78 out of the 147 seats on offer. McCullagh is brutally frank about the scale of Fine Gael’s disaster and Costello’s lacklustre leadership when back in opposition but he makes the case that many of the initiatives Seán Lemass would be celebrated for – the economic revival and his glasnost towards the North – had had their roots under Costello.

This book is well-written, flowing smoothly from one subject to another. The research is impeccable, allowing readers to gain a strong sense of the times as well as of the players involved. The central one here is, of course, Costello, managing his colleagues with skill, events perhaps less so. Costello was suited more to the private life of a barrister than a public one as a politician. Yet he was able to succeed at both and his dual terms as Taoiseach, regardless of his fears, left an enduring mark on Irish politics.

 

Publisher’s Website: Gill & MacMillan, Limited